Monday, February 27, 2006


"Let us sacrifice to the Muses."
Solon 638-559 BC from "Plutarch - The Banquet of the Seven Wise Men."

For a couple of years now I've been teaching a class called Prompting the Muse. This is a writing class designed to motivate people who need their creativity jump-started or to get people who want to write, to get started. In the class I give prompts, and the students can write any genre and in any form such as prose, poetry, plays, essays etc. It's always interesting and often very exciting to see the results.

Some example of what kind of prompts I use in class and for weekly assignments include writing from music, visual prompts, one liners, monologue, observations, writing haiku, exercises in point of view and dialogue and flash fiction (stories written from a picture in which they have 5 minutes to write whatever the picture invoked.) It's a lot of fun and really gets people's creative juices stimulated. I also encourage 10 minute timed writings on any subject, random or by choice, every day. These stream-of-conciousness writings often can be expanded and developed into longer stories.

I use the same prompt technique in the Memoirs Write from the Heart group that I instruct once a week. As in my Prompts class, besides the weekly assignments we do 10 minute writings in the class. Examples of these are: Practical jokes; A metaphor that likens the self to an inanaimate object ("I am a fan" "I am a book.") and how it relates to your personality; Have you ever fibbed to save your skin? Write about your mother's kitchen, etc. Of course I also use music in this class too, because songs invoke many memories.

Last week in my Memoir class we had an assignment that had such amusing and creative results I decided to try it myself on my other blog
This assignment was: Imagine two or more sides of yourself as distinct characters each with reasons to be angry with or love and need the other part.
As I'm always talking to myself (my other blog is titled "Conversations with Myself") I decided to try it. And you can too. Just see what you and your alter-ego have to say to each other. It's quite intriguing. And it's fun, too! I've also written the one about likening yourself to an inamiate object, and I might post that next.

These little 'prompts' are a good exercise to get yourself started. That being said, I better return to work on the novel. I know, I said I'd get started right away today. But it's Monday, and I had to do the laundry and after such a busy weekend I needed some time to get my head back together again. Okay...enough you go!

"When toilsome contests have been decided, good cheer is the best physician, and songs, the sage daughters of the Muses, soothe with their touch."
Pindar 518- 428 BC "Nemean Odes" IV l 1

"Whatever a poet writes with enthusiasm and a divine inspiration is very fine."
Democrites 460- 370 BC fragment 18 (apparantly the earliest reference to the madness or divine inspiration of poets.)

Thursday, February 23, 2006


"The beginnings and endings of all human undertakings are untidy, the building of a house, the writing of a novel, the demolition of a bridge, and eminently the finish of a voyage."
John Galsworthy 1867-1933 "Over the River" 1933 ch 1.

There are times, I'm certain any novel-writer will agree, that the writing becomes overwhelming as the project keeps getting bigger and bigger and wandering away. As the story progresses, you get to know your characters better, allowing them to take you off on tangents of their own design until it seems you are lost in this other-world you have created and there doesn't seem to be any light at the end of the convoluted tunnel.

When I started writing Shadow of the Lion I had in mind that it would only take me about a year. I intended it to be a juvenile historical novel about the short and tragic life of Alexander the Great's son, a short novel for young readers.

After a year of writing (which had followed a year of intensive research) I realized the story was far too political and complicated to be absorbed by a young audience. To do it justice, it had to be told in a different, more "Homeric" way. I was advised by a published juvenile author to just go ahead and write it the way I felt it should be written. So I started over, writing it from a multiple point of view. In time, the theme changed from a rites-of-passage to a more political theme: How blind ambition and greed brought down a world power. It became not only the story of the boy, Iskander (Alexander IV), but the more complex story about the end of Alexander's dynasty. Little did I realize, when I made the decision to switch from a juvenile historical to a more complicated adult historical, that the novel would take me so long to complete.

I recall how disappointed I was when I read Mary Renault's Funeral Games which covers the same period of history. To me the story seemed to be 'documented', with a lack of character development and not a lot of tension in the plot. I know it was her last book and she was elderly by then, so perhaps she had rushed it through to finish it. My novel follows the same period of time, and I constantly refer back to hers to see how she fit in the complex political issues and intrigues between the Successors of Alexander. But in my novel I've chosen to develop the key characters more extensively, especially the women who are fascinating individuals who have never been given a fair recognition by the historians. The child, too, is little known. He lived a tragic life, born just after his eminent father died suspiciously in Babylon, used as a pawn in the battle between the Successors, dragged around from camp to camp for the first years of his life and at the age of thirteen, just before he was able to legally rule as king, he was imprisoned and finally murdered by his father's life-long enemy Kassandros, who sought to claim the throne for himself.

This kind of story has taken endless years of research, in libraries, and on site, and lucky for me, while I have lived in Greece I have been privileged to not only visit some of the places I write about, but I've talk to Classical scholars and archaeologists who are experts on the subject.

Still, the research seems endless and often, like the other day, I end up spending several hours looking up some small detail (which I found on the internet, an amazing tool for researchers!)

There have been times when the well ran dry and I couldn't write, had to set the manuscript aside for awhile, then get a fresh start. There are other times when I am writing constantly, almost non-stop. The story has consumed my life. In between working on it, I am always writing something: journals, blogs, memoirs. I spent two years revising my play The Street, for its successful production, then began to write a second play (House of the Muses, about the lyric poet Sappho, as yet unfinished). Of course there's my travel journalism which is a source of a small amount of income (and certain rewards such as my forthcoming trip to Malaysia). But the novel seems endless and sometimes I wonder if it will ever be finished! Although I am close to the end now, it's a daunting task. Then comes the job of cutting, because I am already in such deep water I have enough written for at least three books and it has to be chopped down to a handy 500 pages. though I'm not too worried about the editing as I already have a clear picture of what can be cut without ruining the plot-line.

I was looking at the phenomenal word-count the other day and started telling myself maybe I should be cutting corners, skipping over some of what I have already outlined to write. But no, I've decided to carry on and cut later. I'm writing as fast as I can but there are days when I feel like a mouse on a treadmill, getting nowhere fast. I'm a slow writer, meticilous, block editing as I go along with the help of my wonderful critique group. So what I've written so far is pretty well a near-final draft. However, I'm asking myself "When will it be over?"

I've got another half-written Celtic tale waiting -- one I set aside when I started this project, thinking "It's a juvenile historical. It will only take me about a year to write!" I have to admit I'm enjoying the journey. I know the characters as well as I know my friends. It's been an exciting world to get lost in. But like all journeys it has to eventually come to an end.

"A man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to it."
Samuel Johnson 1709-1784 From James Boswell, "Life of Johnson" (1791) Nov. 5, 1728

Thursday, February 16, 2006


The road to the City of Emerald is paved with yellow bricks."
Lyman Frank Baum 1856- 1919 "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz"

Being a travel writer definitely has some perks. If you read my travel blog at you will read some preliminary entries to the trip I am going on to Malaysia in just a couple of weeks. I won this trip as a door-prize at a gala last Spring held by the B.C. Association of Travel Writers, of which I am a member of. It's an all-expense paid trip to this tropical paradise, five star hotels and city tours: 3 days in Kuala Lumpur at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, then 3 days on the island of Langkawi at the Langkawi Lagoon Resort. We paid for an additional 4 days at this resort and then were given an extra day in K.L. on our return. The trip was for two except for the air fare. As my sister was unable to come with me, one of my long-time friends is coming along. Both of us are thrilled beyond words at this stroke of luck. Of course, it's a kind of 'assignment' for me as I will be expected to write some stories about Malaysia. I'm looking forward to that too!

Because I'm a member of the BCATW I get a few perks thrown in, such as invitations to media shows and receptions. Last weekend it was a special reception and art exhibit presented by Tourism New Zealand. We met at the Spirit Wrestler Gallery to view an amazing display of Maori and Northwest Coastal Native art. Later we went to a wine reception at the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel (rather posh) and then a reception buffet- banquet which was attended by many First Nations people as well as the visiting Maori artists. It was fascinating watching the procession of elders and the greeting ceremonies. Then a delicious banquet was served of various foods, produce from New Zealand (except for the donated fresh salmon of our Pacific Coast) all prepared by the N.Z. chef. Quite an extravagent event. We even got to meet the N.Z. High Commissioner and his wife, lovely people, so gracious. I've always wanted to visit N.Z. so this just whet my appetite.

I've been busy teaching my night school classes lately and this week I also was invited to teach a travel writing class at one of the colleges where my friend teaches journalism. That was another bonus, as it pays really well and is an inspiring experience for me too. My writing classes are: Novel Writing, Prompting the Muse (writing from prompts) and Travel Writing. All of them are enjoyable but the Travel Writing is always the most fun. I love hearing about other people's amazing trips and showing them how to write about them in an interesting and entertaining way, whether for articles, blogs, journals, or creative non-fiction stories.

You don't make a lot of money freelancing these days, so I supplement my writer's 'income' by teaching classes, which is most enjoyable. And then of course, comes tax time and I submit a 'self employment' return and as I am a travel writer and must travel to do this, all the expenses I incur are deducted (as well as other writing related expenses). This generally pays for my next trip. And as the Malaysia trip is pretty well 'free' except for spending money, I am hoping that later this year I can afford to go to Chile. And that will not only be a travel writing trip but a sentimental journey to see the places my friend A. always talked about and spend time with his lovely ex who has invited me there.

So, in spite of not making a ton of money for my writing, there are these other 'perks' which make it all worthwhile. (I should add the dozens of pens and other doo-dads I collect whenever I go to a travel media show!) Not to speak of the interseting schmoozing that goes on. Now I'm aiming for more FAM trips in future. I figure I've earned it!

"Setting out on a voyage to Ithaca
you must pray that the way be long,
full of adventures and experiences."
Constantine Peter Cavafy 1863-1933 "Ithaca" 1911 l.11

* * *
This probably doesn't fit in the TBR Challenge, but here goes:
TITLE: "Dinner with Persephone: Travels in Greece"
AUTHOR: Patricia Storace
YEAR PUBLISHED: 1996, Vintage Departures, Vintage Books (Div of Random House NY)
WHY DID YOU GET THIS BOOK? My travel companion was reading it on our trip to Greece last summer and loaned it to me.
DO YOU LIKE THE COVER? The cover has a picture of a succulent pomegrante, Aphrodite's fruit of love. Quite appealing.
DID YOU ENJOY THE BOOK? Yes. The book was not simply a travelogue but written with a great deal of scholarship. It provided a lot of information and anecdotes about Greek life, customs, superstitions, myths and history.
WAS THE AUTHOR NEW TO YOU AND WOULD YOU READ SOMETHING BY THIS AUTHOR AGAIN? Patricia Storace is the author of a book of poems and won a prize for poetry from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She has published essays but this is her first book of prose. I would read her future books.
ARE YOU KEEPING IT OR PASSING IT ON? I must return it to my friend.
ANYTHING ELSE? I enjoyed the book, in particular some of the anecdotes and stories about famous Greeks, in particular the tragic story of Penelope Benaki, daughter of the famous Benaki family whose home is now the Benaki Museum in Athens. She survived a harsh and unhappy life and became Greece's first children's writers, under the name of Penelope Delta.
Sadly, she killed herself with poison when the Germans invaded Greece in the '40's.
Some things I didn't like about the book were that is often went on too long with historical background and not too many exciting 'travel' experiences of the author which slowed the pace. In the final chapters about Ayvalik (Aivali) and Istanbul, Turkey, I disagreed with some of the commentary regarding the Turkish women. I've visited both Ayvalik (once) and Istanbul (several times since 1975) and also other west coast Turkish cities as recently as 2004, and did not frequently find women dressed in 'ugly long overcoasts' and veils. Mostly they were in modern western dress or the colourful pantaloons the village women wear. They are not so cloistered as the author seemed to portray them, though some of her facts are correct. I felt she was observing the more liberal Turkish Muslims from a critical and closed American P.O.V. and she was only there for a brief time so wasn't interacting much with the locals. As for her observations of Greek village life and customs, having lived in a tiny shepherd's village in the mountains of Evvia for part of the five years I spent living in Greece, I agreed with most of her comments. "Dinner with Persephone" is an interesting book, in particular if you have little knowledge of the country and people of Greece. My friend, who was making her first visit to Greece when she read it, found the book very informative.

Monday, February 06, 2006

OFF THE PAGE and Other Writer's Events

"The only thing I was fit for was to be a writer,
and this notion rested solely on my suspicion
that I would never be fit for real work, and that
writing didn't require any." Russell Baker 1925 - "Growing Up." 1982 ch 9

Looking back, I must have started writing as soon as I could grasp a pencil and spell out the words. At the age of ten I was writing short plays for my classmates, mostly plays about the war (WW2) and fairy tale plays to be acted out for the entertainment of my neighbourhood playmates. After Dad came home from the war, when my family travelled by train across the wide expanse of the Canadian prairies and through the Rocky Mountains to the west Coast, at the age of twelve, I imagined myself a pioneer, and began to write longer stories about the early frontier settlers. By the time I was sixteen and got my first real typewriter, I had expanded my stories to short-novel length and wrote about Biblical and Roman history. I wrote all through my junior and high school years, often entertaining my classmates during Study Hall with the latest chapters of my novels.

There was little encouragement then, for aspiring young writers like me. Although some of my grad. class women still recall the stories I'd read out in class (one of them about a circus trapeze star who I saw fall from him high trapeze to the arena floor -- miraculously not killed but badly injured) most teachers didn't encourage me. My mother was often called to the school and told that if I paid more attention to Math and Science and less about day-dreaming in my imaginary worlds I would be a better student.) All I ever wanted to be was a writer. Math and Science meant nothing to me. History and Literature were my forte. And at one time I aspired to be an actor. That too was discouraged.

Nowdays kids have so many more opportunities and are encouraged to follow their aspirations. Schools are focusing more on litarary and writing programs for students. One of these programs is "Off The Page" sponsored by the Federation of B.C. Writers with the backing of a special grant. Members of the Fed. are invited to go to schools (any grade from kindergarten up) to talk to the children about writing and to share their experiences of being a writer. I've been a part of this program for three years now and find it a most rewarding experience. (You can read about it on the Fed website at
Check out "Off the Page" and look for my bio under W. Ruth Kozak).

Last week I was invited to visit a grade 6/7 class who are currently studying the novel and planning to write novellas themselves. They had already studied 'setting' and 'characterization' and were now working on 'plot'. I took along some of my early manuscripts, written when I was twelve and one from when I was sixteen to demonstrate certain points such as character description and the important first page, introducing character, setting and hinting at the conflict. I read an excerpt from the one story which was the first thing I had published, aged twelve, in a CGIT magazine. It was about a Dutch war orphan, the idea gleaned from watching news reels and listening to stories my Dad had told from when he was stationed in Holland during the war. (I talked to the children about where I find story ideas and how I eventually focused mainly on historical fiction.)

We played a plotting game where I give them a story line and 3 characters. Two children who have been brought up in luxury are suddenly orphaned and placed in the care of an avaricious, nasty old Aunt. They have to invent a fourth character and plot out the story. They were working in groups of six and were so enthusiastic the room was a buzz of young voices. Later each group presented their story, which included an introduction to the characters. They were so eager to do another exercise like this and the teacher promised that after the lunch break they could turn their stories into plays and practice some play writing.

It was an exciting and inspirational morning for both the children and myself and the teacher was so pleased with the results he asked if I could come back another time. Of course I said I'd be more than happy to return. As I told the children, they are lucky to have these opportunities to explore and develop their creative talents. I would have given anything during my school years if such a program had been offered.

That day set off a weekend of other pleasant events which included attending a Board meeting for the Pandora's Poetry Collective. I am on the Board of this very active poetry group who are doing remarkable things with young people in the community. You can read about them on their website at . If you check under "Executive Board" you'll find my name W. Ruth Kozak. (For any of you who are poets, they offer programs and contests for adults as well as children).

In addition, next week I've been invited to attend the journalism class my friend teaches at Kwantlan College to present a workshop on travel writing. I've done this for a couple of years as well and it's another inspiring experience.

So this past week, including the three night school classes I teach and the Memoir group on Thursday mornings, has been focused mostly on writing. I found myself too exhausted to do my own writing though, and have lagged behind in work on my novel. So now I must try and catch up.

At last the sun is shining after weeks and weeks of rain and terrible wind storms which made travelling to and fro from my classes by bus a real chore. With the sunshine my energy has returned and so has my inspiration. I'm looking forward to my weekly critique group, The Scribblers, tonight and we'll we welcoming a couple of new members. And the next three nights are my classes which are dyanmite groups this term. As is the Memoir group on Thursday mornings. Their stories never fail to amaze me.

So here I am, all those years later, from the first time I wrote down my little stories and plays and shared them with my classmates, really living the writer's life. It has taken a lot of perseverence, determination and the willingness to live on a shoestring, trusting that eventually some editor will publish my work, but it's all worth the effort. As I told the children, you have to hang onto your dream, be determined and focused and practice your craft daily just as a musican must practice every day, and eventually you will be successful.

"A teacher who can arouse a feeling for one single good action,
for one single good poem, accomplishes more than he who
fills our memory with rows on rows of natural objects, classified with name and form."
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe "Elective Affinities" bk II ch 7. 1749-1832