Tag Archives: advice

‘Chain Letter’, or ‘the one where I talk about my writing process’

One of the finest human interactions is that simple, thrilling moment when you share a secret. A memory, an aspiration, your true opinions, a thought you’ve kept to yourself. You blurt the out sometimes. Others you keep forever. For me, secrets typically crawl out slowly like new roots that grow and turning past obstacles seeking nutriment. They live just under the surface.

When asked recently by a good friend and storyteller, Selena Chambers, to discuss writing as part of an unfolding chain letter style response to a question writer’s often put off, I began to think about the root system of my secrets. In this post, I’ve tried to unfurl what’s hidden and to share a little about the process of digging the secret things up and handing them over at the surface.

1) What am I working on? Followers of this blog know that I’m a transplant. First from the Midwest to the South and, more recently, from the South to up to True North, or Vancouver, British Columbia. When you move, there’s lots of anticipation about what will happen to you there. I anticipated all kinds of thing, but never how much of my thinking would turn to comparison and exploration here. My writing, both on and off line, centers around defining the concept of home now that I live somewhere dramatically different.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre? This blog seems to be capturing the change in scenery that I’m used to reading about once it’s been lived through. As in, what I’m trying to do here is to keep a record of how things around me change – how I’m changing – as it’s happening. I’m trying to be an observer of what I would otherwise come back to in ten years and describe to you as something that happened to me in the past.

3) Why do I write what I do? This particular project happened as mechanism for helping me figure out what I was noticing around me. The place I was in, new trees, new climate, new people, plastic shoes, all these things felt a little too whirl-wind-y. Taking those experiences down, photographing them, and logging them here has helped me to identify what it was that I liked about this new place I live. Instead of random ideas floating around me, I’ve used this place to grab them as a would a butterfly with a net. To examine them rather than simply ‘look’.

4) How does my writing process work? I’m a journalist by training, so I write about things I have actually seen, but I am cultivating the imagination at the same time. It’s this second part that alludes me most. I would argue that if – like me – you can’t answer this question in a straight-forward manner, then you aren’t treating writing as work. If you can answer it, then I’d argue that you shouldn’t, because you’ve found a way to wrangle down fleeting thoughts, to gather the wandering herds of imagination. No matter how close to the surface that gets, it should stay a secret. So far, I’ve found myself between these two places – there’s a bit of a process, but I could be better to define it for myself, not for others.

One thing that’s true about the writing process is that it depends entirely on reading. Lately I must admit that I’ve been absorbing all sorts of paper-based reading material from Lacan lectures to a wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest identification manual to a novels about an old man in Guernesey. When my hands aren’t full of paper, I’ve been finding real pleasure looking around brainpickings.org which always has great, often literary posts. And, if you’re in the mood for reading material, do stop over at selenachambers.wordpress.com – the author of which has inspired some of my most excellent real-life moments and – happily – this post.



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Vocabulary Lesson

Sometimes I get to feeling like an underaged grandmother. This modern world and all it’s trendy concepts and mash-ups has a way of putting me directly in touch with my further eighty-year-old self – you know, the one where I get to grumble out loud without consequences and tell people I think their ideas are dumb without consequence. Even though I’m closer in age to a 15-year old than to my grandmother, I don’t know what a bitcoin is and I don’t want my eyeglasses to tell me whether or not I’m about to have a heart attack or look at buzzfeed posts about the some-number-of-things that something or another. I want to shop at thrift stores and have to take out  shoulder pads from 80s blazers and bake things with whole wheat flour and read books made out of paper.

I do, however, want to see people act better do nice things for themselves and the other creatures on this planet so, when I learned about two new words that, on first glance, sounded like the kind of thing that normally makes me shudder, I had to admit maybe new, buzzworthy concepts aren’t always all bad. The words? Flexitarian and rewilding.

The first one I think I am. Having spent the last ten years going on and off a completely vegetarian diet, I’ve landed somewhere comfortably on the side of vegetables but without the commitment. ‘Flexitarians‘ eat soup made from chicken stock, sometimes grill up some hotdogs, and maybe grab fish tacos once in a while. What they don’t do is have meat every meal, or even every week. That’s important for all the right reasons – health, the environment, your wallet, the ocean, animal rights – and it’s more realistic for people than straight-up vegetarianism might be. There’s plenty of reasons, obviously and obviously, to become a vegetarian, but most people still eat loads of meat so I thought this was a pretty neat concept. Maybe even a starter kit for self-improvement though food choices. I wouldn’t be a true flexitarian unless I asked you to try it, but I do draw the line just before proselytizing most times.

A flexitarian's dinner.

A flexitarian’s dinner.

The other word that’s interesting is ‘rewilding’. I heard this first on one of those radio interviews you catch the end of but don’t remember what station or who was speaking. Then I read about this group who wants to see Europe return to a more wild state. My muddled memory of that radio piece plus what I’ve learned since spells a case for returning (at least parts of) the world as much as possible to the wilderness. And more so than just to an environment similar to the one we had before the industrial revolution – these guys want to return things to the actual open wildness that was before people. This is interesting to me because it seems a drift from the conservation ideas I have come to know as a 21st century human. Not just ‘let’s recycle and eat locally’ but ‘let’s tear down these old buildings and let the trees grow back’.

So the chant is to reintroduce wolves and grizzly bears, connect huge tracks of land  to other huge tracks of land in a way that follows how animals move naturally, and let’s get people back to working the land in harmony with the natural world. Coppicing and harvesting, rather than bulldozing and fertilizing. These people are thinking big and that I can respect. With news like scallop die offs and rhino extinction, it’s probably time for some renegade action in addition to all those re-suable water bottles we’re so proud of here on the west coast.

I’ll still probably keep avoiding facebook games and a new cell phone for as long as mine still works, but I’m happy to have been exposed to some pretty cool new ideas. Good to take your attention away from re-stitch these shoulder seams, I suppose, no matter your age.

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Number 30 on number 31 (Oh and 29 too)

A whole year gone, and I’m excited to say I’ve completed my mission – to taste, make, eat, and share 30 cakes  from birthday No. 30 until birthday No. 31. The last few weeks I was quite anxious that the whole thing might fall apart, but thanks to a delicious (and nutritious?) breakfast on my birthday morn’ and an English treat at one of Vancouver’s finest pubs, the Cheshire Cheese Inn, I can officially stop pestering everyone with photos of cake.

No. 29: Mini, cloud-topped double  vanilla beauties.

No. 29: Mini, cloud-topped double vanilla beauties.

Brambleberry Trifle

And, finally, Brambleberry Trifle.

Double vanilla I won’t sour with an explanation. Just promise you’ll try it… maybe even for breakfast. The trifle, however, I feel keen to explain. Wikipedia says some of the first trifle mentions date as far back as the 1590s and I though that fitting to celebrate my grown-up-ness. Custard,  liquor-soaked bread, brambleberries and a heap of whipped cream makes for an impressive cake indeed, especially when it follows a pint of celebratory lager.

As this  took a whole year to complete, I feel like I should be able to offer more fanfare, but the soft landing of some of our most worthy endeavors often fails to be easily described. The best I can say is that I got to share this year-long celebration of me with some of the very best people I know – sister, husband, friends, and a few quietly with me, myself, and I.  So here’s to being older and to accomplishing even the silliest of goals.


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30 Cakes (22/30)

Of all the phrases we hear (and use) too often, and I think ‘pleasant surprise’ is one of the ones I like least. This is only because when I actually do encounter one, the phrase kicks in and I immediately stop considering what makes the surprise pleasant. Like the other day when I ordered apple pie and coffee at a sandwich shop as part of my endeavor to eat 30 Cakes in this, my 30th year. It’s a deli so, low expectations, right? Wrong.

Apple pie and sweet surprises.

Apple pie and sweet surprises.

Turns out this sandwich shop (it’s called PHAT, you know, like pretty, hot and tasty) has an apple pie good enough to be tagged as a pleasant surprise. ‘Pleasant’ in that it’s nice to be presented with a something the maker of which cared about, took their time with, and wanted you to like. ‘Surprise’ because we spend so much time noting the petty problems and annoyances of a day, so when something nice comes at you, it’s probably better to drop the over-used phrases and just enjoy it.

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Summer, according to my phone.

Recently, I was asked what thing about people bothered me the most – as in, did I have an irrational fear of the elderly or an instant dislike of people who perpetually told you the gritty details of their health problems. It was one of those things that you can only talk about with close friends, but we all have ‘peves’ with each other and it makes for pretty good fun to identify the minimally terrible and often hilarious things about your friends that you so enjoy.

One of the things we didn’t bring up was over-use of cell phones that seems to have become socially acceptable. It’s a practice of mine that I don’t use my phone when I’m talking to, sitting with, or generally in the same area as someone I know. Right next to hand written letters, I think people sharing time with each other is one of the greatest things about friendship and family. These days, so many conversations between two or more humans is perpetually stopped or distracted by looks into pockets or screen-based chats. Hopefully this is a trend that will die out as we realize how rude we are being to each other. Not trying to sound like a bossy old lady, but one can only hope.

In the meantime, I must admit that I remain undecided about the addition of phone cameras into our lives. While I’m certainly no professional, I have appreciated photography since I was given access to my dad’s old 35mm Cannon with detachable lenses when I was eight or maybe twelve. Seeing the working mechanisms of a little dark place that made printed copies of things that otherwise exist only in memory made me want to take pictures, study photographer’s styles and techniques, and generally appreciate thoughtful and interesting documentation of the world.

Perhaps mistakenly, I often don’t carry a camera these days because I can rely on my phone to take snapshots. This brings me back round to the over-use issue and, like I said, I actually don’t know where I stand on this. Yesterday, I purposefully didn’t bring a camera or my phone to the release of a hand full of Harbor Seals that I had helped care for as a volunteer at the Vancouver Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Rescue Center. This was the annual volunteer-led release where the people who have helped feed and clean and grow and heal get to carry cages down to the water and release now-healthy seals. The beach is usually cluttered with friends and family and yesterday was no exception. The dry beach where we were was pretty shallow and everyone was standing as close as they could almost piled on top of each other. Amidst the crowded bodies, all arm were up and out; everyone was ready with their phone cameras.

What I’m afraid of is that this sort of photography removes us from the moments we are experiencing. There’s no zoom on those things, after all, so we must push our way to the front and sometimes get so close that we loose the perspective of a regular camera man – one where you take the whole scene into account, where the background matters too.

On the way home, I looked though the things I had photographed this summer and found another layer to the argument – I had not remembered several of the events documented with a quick snap, or should I say finger press, of the camera phone. For this, spy-camera-sized and instantly obtainable photo ability, I guess I’ll have to say I’m glad. But I still think we should put phones down more often and really look around, listen to each other, and try to remember the events of our lives. Here are a few that, thanks to having the phone,  I’ll remember from this summer.

My first 'swim' in BC waters. Can you believe it took so long?

My first ‘swim’ in BC waters. Can you believe it took so long?

Weird things downtown.

Weird things downtown.

That afternoon we went to a neat forest on the riverside with some good friends.

That afternoon we went to a neat forest on the riverside with some good friends.



Wine and sunshine.

Wine and sunshine.

Cute street scenes.

Cute street scenes.





A day at the pool in Stanley Park.

A day at the pool in Stanley Park.

Visits to a muddy border.

Visits to a muddy border.

A picnic at Green College.

A picnic at Green College.

A paperweight at the Vancouver archives embellished with the humor of an antiquarian.

A paperweight at the Vancouver archives embellished with the humor of an antiquarian.

Finding this map of what Coal Harbor was going to look like once.

Finding this map of what Coal Harbor was going to look like once.

The plan I made for my Green Streets garden.

The plan I made for my Green Streets garden.

The walkway into the Anthropology museum.

Appreciating the walkway into the Anthropology museum.

Finding a view of the fireworks form our bedroom window.

Finding a view of the fireworks form our bedroom window.

Meeting this guy.

Meeting this guy.

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The other day I happened on the January issue of one of those young lady magazines where they tell you the best new kind of mascara and what color high heels are in this season. While I was once a real sucker for that sort of thing, I’ve pretty well found the mascara I like and I kinda only go shopping when I need something these days. It’s still fun to look through pages of fancy clothes and pick out things you would actually wear amongst fur vests and wildly patterned pants. Also I so enjoy the Christmas-present-like feeling of opening the folds of perfume ads and smelling the surprise underneath. What I like even better than that is a good horoscope.

Mine said, “2013 will be the beginning of a wave of changes that will last the next three years.” It hinted at internal reflection. It mentioned getting rid of things in a healthy way that would help. It said, get this, I would be preparing for a major move “possibly to another country” forecast for 2016.


Another country?

But I just got here!  Is Canada going to kick us out? Will I be bound for Tahiti? Will the Southern home call us back?

The day after the horoscope incident, Roger Ebert died. I mention this only because, in addition to being one of the first people who taught me to think critically about art (we watched a load of At the Movies as a kid), reading his masterfully written talks on culture and kindness seem to have clarified the mixed emotions I’ve been feeling lately.

In the last month, I had an amazing trip with my sister and then sent her on a plane back in her far away home. I returned to a fun and funky set of Vancouver buddies, but one of my best friends in Florida is heavy in my thoughts. I have taken on new and stimulating work, which means I’ll be saying goodbye to the wonderfully empty schedule I’ve had the last few months. The city is green and pink with the buds of spring. Our quiet little neighborhood is about to be transformed into a loud and busy tourist haven.

2013. The year of Change.

How do I feel? Thankfully, grateful.

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words from the wise

It’s still January right? Still time to heed some great advice?

“A writer should write what he has to say and not speak it.” I’ll read that as work. Work, work, work.


Thanks, S.J.!

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