Review of Ursula K. Le Guin’s ‘Steering the Craft’

I just finished reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s ‘Steering the Craft : A 21st-Century guide to Sailing the Sea of Story’.
It is a short book and covers a lot of the craft of writing. I nodded in agreement over and over. ‘Read your Prose Aloud’ is something I stumbled on years ago. It is amazing how much awkward writing can be found with this tip. Her admonitions about adverbs echos so many writers, but her observation that ‘Those of us who were brought up to be unaggressive in conversation are liable to use qualifiers … that soften or weaken words they modify. In conversation they are OK; In written prose they’re bloodsuckers.’ The chapter on point of view and voice was excellent. I didn’t complete all the exercises in the book, but only because I had seen from experience how well a chapter or scene can be improved by re-writing it from another characters POV. And again how re-writing from third person to first, and vise-versa can have a huge change in affect. (And the difference between affect and effect.)
Le Guin also uses extracts from some great literature in her examples. Now I need to read Virginia Woolf’s ‘Jacob’s Room’ and Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’ again.
This is a great book for writers. I find as I am rewriting and editing books like this one help put me in the right frame of mind. Well recommended.

Review of Brenda Ueland’s ‘If You Want to Write’

Brenda Euland’s book ‘If You Want to Write’ was recommended in Julia Cameron’s ‘The Artist’s Way.’ I am working through the twelve-week program in Cameron’s book and will post on it separately.
Brenda Euland’s book reminds me of the Dorothea Brande book ‘On becoming a writer’ and they published both in the 1930s. Euland’s ‘If you Want to Write’ is an inspirational, almost spiritual book. Rather than speaking to techniques for writing, she encourages and coaches writers. She is a cheerleader to the writer’s soul, but not by repeating slogans but by encouraging each writer to find their truthful voice. It is this truthfulness that will give a writer a voice that readers believe.
I generated a list of things I took from the book:
Ueland is encouraging slow, thoughtful behavior rather than frantic grinding out of material.
Learning to live in the present and seeing, really seeing, what is around us.
Writing honestly and truthfully. Simply. Truthful writing is good, and easy to spot as good.
Art is Infection. To infect the reader with the same thoughts, feelings and ideas as the writer.
The Imagination works slowly and quietly.

Her chapter titles are great: Be Careless, Reckless! Be a Lion! Be a Pirate! When you write.
Why you are not to be Discouraged, Annihilated, by Rejection slips.

And even in the footnotes I found gems: 31 – I know a fine concert pianist who says sadly of a terribly hardworking but hopeless pupil: “She always practices and never plays.”

This book is going on my list of strongly recommended writing books. A small book that is well worth the time and effort to read.

Week One of ‘The Artist’s Way’ Program

I have begun working through a program as prescribed in Julia Cameron’s  https://www.goodreads.com/series/246709-the-artist-s-way ‘The Artist’s Way’. Saturday I completed the first week and so today seems a good place to check in.
The entire book is very good, inspirational even. I will do a separate review after the program. The core of the program is to keep ‘Morning Pages’, a daily journal of approximately 750 words, to complete a weekly ‘Artist’s Date’, and to complete the exercises for each week.
My first thought was that the Morning Pages would be easy. I already keep a morning journal so that bit will be easy. Wrong.
My journal entries averaged under 300 words a day, sometimes just a few sentences complaining about my health or the weather. And because I am recovering from a spinal and head injury in June, I have lots to moan about. I found that 250 to 300 words was my easy and normal output. 750 words was a stretch. I ran out of stream-of-consciousness rambling and found I needed to start thinking more. I started summarizing the previous day’s activities, but soon found that un-fulfilling. So I started developing my plan. Putting my goals for writing down on paper.
My plan:
Complete some short stories, get them critiqued on ‘Critique Circle’, an on-line writing group I am a member of, and then try to get them published. I borrowed a copy of the 2019 Short Story and Novel Market book from the library and started the research. My goal is one short story out the door every month.
Read and Critique 50 books this year, alternating fiction and non-fiction.
Finish my novel, ‘Hopes Up’, and get it beta-read by a few people I respect.
Start on a non-fiction book I have been thinking about.
Start a second novel.
Continue with both Critique Circle as a method to develop my craft, and as a monthly book club member at the library.
Evaluate my life, consider my over-riding goals, who do I want to be?

I realize that this accident, that changed my life so radically, is also providing an opportunity to re-invent myself and decide how to spend the next twenty years or so.
So the program and the ‘Morning Pages’ are providing me with a forum to work through all of these thoughts, plans, hopes and dreams. Seven days in and I am already seeing a huge value.
It takes more of my time. I used to write in my journal while having breakfast, now I am still writing 45 minutes later. My dog Sawyer doesn’t like it, he has to wait longer for his morning walk. But if a writer is defined by writing, I am now twice the writer I was, my output has more than doubled. A good result. And the material is more focused, also good.
A slight digression, in Julia Cameron’s book she suggests other books that have inspired her. One is Brenda Euland’s ‘If you want to write’. A short, easy book, I also read it this week and found it very inspirational. Both Cameron and Euland have some spiritual ideas about God and creativity that I will learn more about. I will review Euland’s book separately.
So from the first of the three requirements in Cameron’s ‘The Artist’s Way’ I am seeing great value. I am committed to the twelve-week program.
The second requirement was a bit of a bust, this week anyway. Cameron prescribes going on an Artist’s Date. I am working up a list of things I want to do, including the museum of man out at UBC and the Vancouver Art Gallery. But her suggestion to visit a dollar store and have some fun, for the first date, fell flat. It was easy as there is a dollar store beside one of my favourite coffee shops, Waves in Lynn Valley. But as I wandered the isles, the fun disappeared and the cheapness, gaudiness and consumer crap just overwhelmed me. I will try again next week.
But the third requirement, completing the exercises hit pay-dirt for me.
There was some taking stock, reviewing the morning pages process, (Rather than the material) and confirming the positive affirmations and the negative blurts. But the exercise that surprised me was the time travel, going back in time to remember three people who had been ‘enemies of your creative self.’ And then to write out one of those horror stories.
Mine was an English teacher in High School, very last term. We had read D.H.Lawrence’s ‘Sons and Lovers’, frankly a tough text for high school. And I had struggled with some of the material. But I loved books and reading so I wanted to understand it. I asked a question, and the teacher replied with such vile venom that I remember my cheeks burning. He had attacked my work ethic, my intellect, my decency. I was horrified and very nearly cried. I could never understand the response. I put down books and literature for over five years after that.
But I came back to literature when I went to UBC at night, and had to choose a major. I chose English Literature. I have read dozens of novels, and have found that Lawrence’s ‘The Rainbow’ is one of my all-time favourites.
So the question stirred up some ashes from a long dead fire. Why had he been so mean? And instead of hate, I found sympathy. As well as being a teacher he was a local elder in the Baptist Church. I remembered him as leading a youth group called Sentinels, much like Boy Scouts with a more Christian leaning. He was probably a moral man, maybe even self-righteous. And ‘Sons and Lovers’ is a difficult text. It deals with love, passion, and sex. It was probably a prescribed textbook from the Ontario provincial education ministry. And he didn’t know how to talk to young adolescent men and women about it.
So the course is stretching me, making me work and think. And opening my eyes to things I might not have seen before. I am getting value and enjoying it. I will post an update each week.

Personal Status to September 7, 2019

Hello all

Sept 7, 2019
Three-month update by Danny Aldham.
Progress is slow. My medical team tell me to judge progress in weeks, not days. And I do have a team. Three doctors: My GP, a Physiatrist, and the Neurologist. Two Physiotherapists, a Rehab assistant and an Occupational Therapist. I visit Lionsgate hospital three or four times a week.
My walking is pretty good, only a little wobble. My stamina sucks, I can barely make it around the block, and only once a day. My goal for next week is to make it twice. The dog would like that.
My hands have been slower to come back. I can feel hot and cold, but my sense of touch is very reduced. I am typing with two fingers. I try to touch type, but make too many spelling mistakes. I can’t hold a pen and write yet. The OT said we will start on that next week. Driving is out of the question.
I have good days and bad days. More good than bad. The pain is less, I have been off the hydromorphone for a while. Still taking a few other drugs.
I am in a bit of a weird spot with therapy. The protocols for how to treat my injuries are at odds. On the physical side they say I will improve by pushing hard, doing the exercises, working up a sweat. The old ‘no pain, no gain’ approach.
But on the concussion/neurological side, they do not want me to push. If I work too hard mentally I get physically ill. Getting to that point is counter-productive and delays my healing. Trying to be aware of that upper bound of mental activity is what I am working on.
It is frustrating. I have lots of free time, to the point of being bored, but I cannot read too long, or concentrate on new skills. I had thought I might learn Spanish with my time, but I can only do that for twenty or thirty minutes a day. I can’t multi-task at all, and my memory is shaky.
The doctors are all cagey about how long this should take. My GP said most people heal from this type of injury in five or six months. I said, ‘Well, that’s not too bad’. At which point he backpedaled and said not to get my hopes up, it might be longer.
For a Project Manager, used to having a schedule with time-lines and clear deliverables and dates, this drives me around the bend. Patience is not my strong suit. 🙂

Cheers

Danny

The English Language as a Lesson in Resiliance

It has been beaten, invaded, subjugated, enslaved, driven underground, sneered at and crushed like a cockroach. Yet it has rebounded to become the world’s first Universal Language. English.
Around the time of Christ, Londinium was the furthest outpost of the Roman Empire. As the empire fell the Romans withdrew. The few Celtish tribes that still existed made themselves at home.
Until in AD499 the Germanic tribes invaded: Angles and Saxons, bringing with them their language that was to become German.
In AD597 a peaceful invasion happened, as St. Augustine brought Latin and Christianity to the Island of Albion. And the language of Celt, German and now Latin merged.
Next the Viking invaders came, raping, pillaging and speaking that mix of Danish, from which the locals again borrowed and stole words and phrases.
Alfred the Great brought together the English clans in AD793 and the basic English language became the common through the realm.
Until 1066 when the Normans defeated the English at Hasting, and imposed a French speaking aristocracy that lasted 300 years. Again the locals absorbed the words and grammar of their overlords, until the overlords were overrun by English, so that French became a second language to them too.
With the hundred year war, French fell out of style, and English was the language of the land.
So came onto the landscape Geoffrey Chaucer in the 1300s, and then Shakespeare in the late 1500s, followed by the King James bible in 1600 or so.
And the dye was cast. The language that would traverse the world with the British empire, take root in the new world, and spread to become the worlds first global language.
It holds a lesson. Bend but do not break. Adapt. Learn, hide if need be, absorb from others. But never surrender.

Why we read. A Review of ‘North of Normal’

I recently read ‘North of Normal’ by Cea Sunrise Person.
I can see that this book took a huge amount of courage to write. I hope I can find that courage in my writing. Recognizing that bravery I am reticent to throw stones, but I feel the book slightly misses the mark.
Spoiler alert, I am going to discuss content.
As I read the book, following the story of young Cea, I was puzzled by my reaction. The story is written in First Person Point of View (POV). This usually leads the reader to get very close, intimately close, to the main character and narrator. But I didn’t feel that. It was always as if I was watching the action and the behaviour of the people around Cea. I wasn’t getting an emotional reaction, I wasn’t feeling either the joys or disgusts that I would think the narrator experienced. Or the fears.
This lead me to the larger question: What do we want to get out of great literature? Why do we read?
I think it is to get those experiences. I want to know and feel the joy of falling in love when I read. What does it feel like, what is the effort, challenge and excilaration of climbing Mount Everest. And then losing friends up there.
Can I bare the fear of walking through a jungle as a platoon trooper on patrol in hostile territory?
What is it like to be in the command of a mad man chasing a white whale around the globe? Or serving under Nelson at the battle of Trafalgar?
The anguish of rejection by a lover.
The fear of the totalitarian state.
The overcoming of incredible obstacles.
The loss of holding a dying child in your arms.
I want to feel and experience these things, without the costs and effort they would take in real life. And that is what a great book delivers. Not a view to the action, but a role to play and experience in that action. To live it in our minds.
‘North of Normal’ only gave me a peak at the action. So it is good, but not great.

How to Avoid Cultural Appropriation

This thread comes from the ‘Writing Ethnically Different Protagonists’ thread and concern I have from a reviewer.
I have a character in my work, Ruth, who is a North American Native woman from Saskatchewan. She is abused. I am neither a woman nor native. An artist friend who is reading the draft suggested I could be called out for Appropriation of Voice with this character.
I have done some research and found the Canadian Author Margaret Atwood was accused of the same thing with Pauline and Surfacing.
I don’t want to change her background, her culture or her history. She plays an important role in the story and as a metaphor for our Canadian society.
But I want to be empathetic to the Aboriginal culture, history and concerns. Does anyone have any thoughts on how to avoid the charge?
thanks

 

Consenting to Learn in Public

“Consenting to Learn in Public”

I am beginning a journey.
A flag was raised when I had my first draft of a fictional story reviewed. A major character in that story is an aboriginal women named Ruth. She is a North American native from Wood Mountain Saskatchewan. She is abused. And a reviewer suggested I drop the native character as I might be accused of Cultural Appropriation or Appropriation of voice.

I don’t want to change her story or her background, or make the issues invisible. Native people are a real part of the Canada I love and call home. I do want to be empathetic to the real concerns of the community. I don’t want to steal anything. What to do?

The plan is to do some research. To read. Books, web sites, blogs. And to speak to the people I know who have a Native background.
To look for organizations that can teach me, inform me, educate me.

So the journey begins.

I might make some mistakes. I may ask some really dumb questions. I may publicly show my ignorance. Please forgive me in advance.

 

#Consentingtolearninpublic

Anais Nin’s letter to the collector

I had never read this letter until today. It’s wonderful. And puts into words what so bothers me about sex scenes without emotion, passion, love.

“Dear Collector: We hate you. Sex loses all its power and magic when it becomes explicit, mechanical, overdone, when it becomes a mechanistic obsession. It becomes a bore. You have taught us more than anyone I know how wrong it is not to mix it with emotion, hunger, desire, lust, whims, caprices, personal ties, deeper relationships that change its colour, flavour, rhythms, intensities.

You do not know what you are missing by your microscopic examination of sexual activity to the exclusion of aspects which are the fuel that ignites it. Intellectual, imaginative, romantic, emotional. This is what gives sex its surprising textures, its subtle transformations, its aphrodisiac elements. You are shrinking your world of sensations. You are withering it, starving it, draining its blood.

If you nourished your sexual life with all the excitements and adventures which love injects into sensuality, you would be the most potent man in the world. The source of sexual power is curiosity, passion. You are watching its little flame die of asphyxiation. Sex does not thrive on monotony. Without feeling, inventions, moods, no surprises in bed. Sex must be mixed with tears, laughter, words, promises, scenes, jealousy, envy, all the spices of fear, foreign travel, new faces, novels, stories, dreams, fantasies, music, dancing, opium, wine.

How much do you lose by this periscope at the tip of your sex, when you could enjoy a harem of distinct and never-repeated wonders? No two hairs alike, but you will not let us waste words on a description of hair; no two odours, but if we expand on this you cry Cut the poetry. No two skins with the same texture, and never the same light, temperature, shadows, never the same gesture; for a lover, when he is aroused by true love, can run the gamut of centuries of love lore. What a range, what changes of age, what variations of maturity and innocence, perversity and art…

We have sat around for hours and wondered how you look. If you have closed your senses upon silk, light, colour, odour, character, temperament, you must be by now completely shrivelled up. There are so many minor senses, all running like tributaries into the mainstream of sex, nourishing it. Only the united beat of sex and heart together can create ecstasy.”

 

Anais Nin

A Month of Critique Circle

I have been a user of Critique Circle http://www.critiquecircle.com for a month now. I want to record and share my experience, thoughts and feelings about the last month.
I had been trying to put together a group of people who could meet once a month or so. It just wasn’t working. I kept writing but I didn’t share.
There is a monthly ‘Dare’ program here as part of the North Shore Writer’s Assoc, but it is really just a chance to read your work. You don’t get more feed back than ‘I liked that’ or ‘Where do you see the story going?’
I needed real criticism.(And not from my mom.)
I have taken some writing courses, and have received that sort of ‘Single-threaded’ critique where the Prof gives his feedback. One person every week or so. I needed something better. And more.
Then I found a web link that pointed to a dozen good sites for writers. I decided to try Critique Circle.
I joined and began to work through the check list. I read a few critiques and then tried my hand at a few. I did four over a two week period before I posted my first piece.
Giving critiques I found harder than I expected. First I had to read 3 or 4 pieces for each one I wanted to critique. Some I didn’t like and some I thought were such poor quality I didn’t know how to tell the writer that. I wanted to say nice things, because I want people to say nice things to me. Or so I thought.
I asked a couple of questions on the forums and got good friendly responses. I read quite a few critiques, trying to get a feel for how to criticize professionally. And I found some great critiques. I so liked one critique I saw, that I wrote the critter and asked him if he would be willing to crit my work when it came up. I wasn’t sure if this was out of line. I was afraid I was committing a CC faux pas but really liked this guy’s critiques. He told me not to worry, most people here are pretty friendly, and that he would be happy to crit my work.
So then I took the plunge and posted a chapter from a novel I am working on. (In hindsight a mistake.) And held my breath. The next week was exhausting.
It took a day or two to get my first critique, during which time I feared getting no feedback. Did people think my work was so bad they wouldn’t give it the time of day? Did I write crap? Should I give it up now and go back to ditch digging, or whatever. (Writers can be brutal on themselves I learned.)
And then the morning I got my first crit. I’ll admit, I was excited. I opened it up and it was about commas. A whole critique on commas. I had too many, not enough, in the wrong places and missing from the right places. That was it. WTF? Alice through the looking glass I thought.
File that one away and wait. I had to wait two more days. I would compare it to waiting for a child to be born, but that would be a stretch. But I was on edge for two days.
And then someone smiled on me. I opened a crit the third morning and it was just what I was looking for. No sugar coating. She pointed out spelling mistakes and grammar errors. (I thought I had read the piece 10 or 15 times. How had I missed those?) But the critter also made suggestions that I instantly knew were right. ‘How about saying this instead?’ Yes I thought. ‘I am not sure that sounds natural, how about this?’ Yes, your right, that is better. Every suggestion was good. I looked at my work and realized I could make it better. A lot better.
Then another crit came in. Same pointing out the spelling, grammar and formatting errors. But helpful suggestions. And questions about the story. ‘What is the MC thinking?’, ‘I don’t understand why she did this”, and I realized I had not been clear enough. I thought things were obvious but I know the piece too well.
The week became a bit of a roller coaster ride. Up to get a critique at all, down to have the same spelling mistake pointed out, up to have a helpful suggestion.
Then I got the critique I had solicited. Ouch. But in a good way. I realized I have way too many spelling, formatting and grammar errors. I want feedback to help me with the story, the plot, the feel, the characters, the themes, the experience of a reader. But my critters kept seeing these ‘table steak’ issues. I realized I need to submit work that is as close to perfect as I can, so that the critters can move past the spelling errors and get to the real substance. A light came on.
And then I got what I thought was my best critique. (Although I rated three perfect). Questions or comments that probed right into the story, the characters, the motivations. Echoes. And a comment about POV and breaking the story flow. Showing vs telling.
I ended the week exhilarated. I spent as much time re-writing my 1,500 words as I had spent on all the editing I had done in weeks before. I was motivated. I was encouraged. I was inspired even.
Five of the Six critiques I got were gold. Solid Gold. I was a little overwhelmed at times. I am now looking at the larger work and realize I have a ton of work to do. A mountain of work. And just that thought exhausted me. I need to do to those 60K words what I have done to the 1,500 words this week. And I am not done with the 1,500 yet.
Exhausted and Exhilarated. But happy. I have found what I was looking for, what in my heart and head I know I needed. What my writing needs.
Thank you.

Danny Aldham