Sunday, October 31, 2010

Whidbey Hallowe'en with one set of footprints

Photo: view across Saratoga Passage to mainland from Saratoga Inn, Langley, Wa.

Hallowe'en in Langley. In the street at dusk, I bowed to a regal king, patted a striped kitten, was startled by a squawking raven. Then I watched a man in an orange boiler suit put a jack-o-lantern in the back seat of a car. Earlier in the day, Bob Mayer taught us about the writing business, described the changing face of publishing and talked about what it takes to become an author.

The need to change is seen first with the MOE, the moment of enlightenment. Then comes the decision to change, and finally the sustained action that leads to altering unproductive habits.

After lunch, Elizabeth George visited the class. She described her process, bringing along an entire set of organized files and photographs to show us while she explained how she generates her manuscripts. We asked her some questions, then bid her adieu.

Bob then discussed some of the psychological barriers to becoming an author. The greatest of these was fear: paradoxically both of failure and of success. Of course, up his sleeve, Bob had a few strategies for overcoming fear. Yet fear can also be good, he explained.

In fact, much of what we learned Bob presented as "good news, bad news." It seems that in the world of writing and publishing, every benefit has a down side and every problem an advantage.

By the time our little group finished the Warrior Writer workshop, dusk was near. I used the remains of the daylight to walk in the mild but cloudy weather. On First Street I noticed a little green strip with a set of wooden stairs leading down to the beach.

I admired the statue of the boy looking out to sea, his dog beside him ready to play, then descended the steps and set out along the damp strand. To my surprise, mine were the first footsteps to mark the sand. The only sounds were bird calls and softly lapping waves.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Novel Writers' SOS at the Saratoga Inn

Photo: Late hydrangeas grow in the front garden at the Saratoga Inn, Langley WA

Writer of thrillers and non-fiction Bob Mayer, with numerous novels currently in print, hosted the Novel Writing Workshop today and will lead the Warrior Writer Workshop tomorrow.

Mystery writer Elizabeth George will come by for an hour or so to talk about her writing process and answer questions.

Today was loaded with practical information about creating the novel; we worked on expressing a story ideas in a single brief sentence, as well as on plot, characters, setting, story arc, point of view and more.

Tomorrow we talk about the business of writing and publishing; today Bob commented on how fast the industry is changing.

Sobered to hear that the past year has brought more changes to publishing than the previous twenty, I was simultaneously encouraged to learn of Bob's optimism about these changes, which he believes are harbingers of opportunity for writers.

Definitely, with the wealth of information available to would-be writers here this weekend, the Saratoga Inn is a great place to be.

After a spectacular sunrise that displayed an even series of white peaks across the water on the mainland, we had a little rain today, and the weather is cloudy. But the rhododendrons are still blooming around the library and the temperatures are balmy in this charming sheltered seaside town.

Experiencing Whidbey Island

Photo: Charming old houses of Coupeville, WA

Yesterday afternoon I crossed the border from BC into Washington in brilliant sunny weather. My google map instructions, spread on the front seat, directed me to leave the I5 at Exit 192 near Everett and take the Mukilteo Ferry to my destination in Langley, WA. At Burlington I noticed a sign for Anacortes and Whidbey Island. This wonderful route meandered along a secondary highway and brought me to the high double bridge onto Whidbey just as the steeply slanting sun lit the sea and islets with late light.

I drove along the winding highway south, past sea views, farms, forests, gardens and a busy You-pick pumpkin patch doing a booming pre-Hallowe'en trade.

I passed Oak Harbour, Coupeville and Freeland as dusk faded. By the time I came upon the sign marked "Langley," I was beginning to think I'd missed missed my turn. It was night when I drove into town.

Even in the dark, this colony of artists looked lovely, and I was delighted when checking in to note that my room faced the front, and the sea. Now all I had to do was catch up on a bit of pre-reading to be ready for the novel workshop I came for. I look forward to working with Bob Mayer again.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Gingerbread Dogs

Photo by Yasemin Tulpar

Remember gingerbread men? Well, at some point we gave up making them. Maybe it was just too hard to eat human-shaped cookies. Whatever the reason, for the past few years now, gingerbread dogs have been our tradition.

Though it's hard to eat something so cute, they're easy to make. I've been doing it so long. It's one of those seasonal markers that takes root when children are young and becomes an important family ritual of the winter season.

This year the cookies were needed a bit early, to illustrate an article that is coming out in the Christmas issue of West Coast Editor.

So there I was, late at night as usual, rolling out the dough and decorating the doggies with shiny sugar beads as eyes and collars. This touch of early Christmas filled the house with seasonal warmth and infused the dreams of my sleeping family with the fragrance of cinnamon.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Orange lilies coming into bloom

The lobby of the Sheraton Hotel in Guildford is dotted with striped overstuffed sofas with cushions. They're all too easy to sink into. Among the few armchairs of the same design, some are conveniently located near tables.

During the Surrey International Writers' Conference, there was one such armchair I sat in on the first day and kept coming back to.

It was positioned by a large round table with a glass top. Plenty of space to set down a coffee cup and spread out papers while sitting in comfort. If I'd wanted to, I could even have used that surface for my netbook with its external mouse.

At the back of this table were two seasonably appropriate flower arrangements in tall square glass vases.

One was filled with a wintry group of shapely bare branches with a single dried orange flower among them. The other contained a large arrangement of live orange lilies, mostly still in bud.

On the first day of the conference, only one flower was in bloom; by the end, the a whole group of buds on each stem had opened and more were about to burst.

Who knows? Maybe by next October, the work of a crop of the writers who attended the conference will also flower and bear fruit.

New edition now in colour

At the SIWC I was looking at a trade table with a lot of dictionaries when a title struck my eye: English-Portuguese Dictionary: New edition now in colour.

This I had to see, so I flipped it open. Turned out it was the text on the individual entries that was in colour: a nice bold turquoise blue.

Whew! I had been afraid that this dictionary would be full of colour pictures.

There are times when I worry about the loss of our ability to read a sustained piece of unillustrated text, and this time I had almost let the paranoia overwhelm me.

There are consolations. Even if we are less able to focus on reading for long periods, we are more visually literate than ever before. Some say we are also much more savvy and better-informed and it would be hard to argue against that view.

It's just that each generation is formed by the environment in which it thrives, and I grew up surrounded by written words. When I left home at 18, my parents still had no TV.

I know, that makes me sound about a thousand years old, but really, I'm not. Lots of us with such memories are still living. No coloured entry word dictionaries for us, thanks. We don't need them. The pix are all in the imagination.

Surrey International Writers' Conference: from Forensics to Romance

Traditionally, there are night owl sessions at the SIWC, and this year is no exception. Friday was Third Annual Shock Theatre hosted by Vancouver mystery writer Michael Slade. Michael's show revisited old horror stories. The star-studded cast included Diana Gabaldon, Anne Perry, and Jack Whyte.

The stars dramatized two unrehearsed scripts. The sound effects come from the laptop of kc dyer; every time a glitch happened, and they did so frequently, the audience laughed indulgently.

In the first skit, a man has miniature human heads growing out of his skin. He cuts them off with a straight razor, but he dies anyway. In the second story a rapidly growing chicken heart absorbs a city, and the protagonists fail in their attempt to escape in an airplane.

The pumpkin that was to be smashed for a sound effect cracked but did not break, so Sam the sound man had to throw it down again.

This evening, Saturday, those still energetic enough to attend evening offerings had to choose between a forensics presentation by the Vancouver Police Museum and a cocktail reception by the Romance Writers of America.

The SIWC has something for every taste, indeed.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

18th Annual Surrey International Writers' Conference

Attending the SIWC is a wonderful ritual of autumn. Glimpsed through various windows, the blushing maples remind me of conferences past.

In this hall I talked to poet George McWhirter. The light was thus when I heard Jack Whyte's Scottish burr, virtually unchanged by forty years in Canada. Here I discovered the prodigious works of Diana Gabaldon. In this doorway, I met novelist Anne Perry face to face.

For me, the conference began on Thursday morning, in a wonderful master class where Elizabeth Engstrom discussed the architecture of fiction, as well as the normal and predictable moods that accompany the building phases of each novel.

Friday was the official opening. After the welcoming speeches and the keynote speaker, I'm off to a workshop on short story writing.

Every year it's the same. By lunch time on Friday, I feel filled and satisfied: the conference has already given me so much that even if it ended now, it would still have been worth coming.

A lot of the lessons offered by fellow-writers are reminders -- things we have to hear again and again, in different forms and from different people. We know them, but we don't own that knowledge until we put it to use.

After lunch at a large table that includes an agent as well as a writer from my home town, met at a previous conference, I step out of my comfort zone. This is where the real learning takes place.

I know nothing about Robert McCammon. In his workshop, Page 1, he describes how a book's first line must raise compelling questions. We each write a first line and read it out. He listens and talks about how it pulls in the reader, drives the story forward.

Robert's eyes are lit from within. "This is fun," he says, encouraging us to practice writing first lines, just to exercise the imagination. "A lot of this is just a mystery. How do we do this?" He reminds us that each one of us has a unique story to tell.

"You have to believe in your work in a big way," he says. He sees each work in progress as a child that deserves to be born. Nobody else can tell our stories, give life to that metaphorical child.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Up with the gods

Tonight I sat "with the gods," as I recently learned theatre goers say when they sit high up in the balconies. From my aerie, I watched a great opera unfold, with its great themes of love, loss, betrayal and revenge.

This evening's Lillian Alling was the third of four performances of a world premiere at the Queen E. Based on the story of a real and mysterious woman, this opera was commissioned by the Vancouver Opera Society in January of 2006 and was four years in the making, drawing on the skill and talent of librettist John Murrell, composer John Estacio and a host of others.

The Vancouver audience clearly enjoyed the local references; I was particularly taken with the songs about our city's copious rain the and all-too-rare and short-lived sun that transforms our little corner of earth into a paradise. "Look what a crop of umbrellas we've sprouted," they sang, or words to that effect.

The conflict built up steadily in the first act and raised the big dramatic question just before the break. As the second act moved rapidly toward the stunning climax and denouement, the power-packed voice of Judith Forst as Irene soared even higher than it had in the first. The final scene was cathartic and satisfying.

I hadn't been to the opera since the mid-seventies, when the inimitable comic opera singer Anna Russell packed the Orpheum and frolicked through a hilarious version of The Ring of the Niebelungs. I'll definitely be going again.

The Missing Gun

The theatre is an exciting place because every production is different. For one thing, a small error may alter the evening's entertainment in ways the playwright never imagined.

This story, told to me by a friend over coffee, shows what can happen behind the scenes, without the audience ever knowing the difference.

On opening night, Dorothy was excited. She sat through Act I, by turns nervous and enthralled to witness the play she had co-written come to life as a completed artistic vision. As the audience applauded at the end of Act I, she relaxed a little.

At the beginning of Act II, something went wrong. In horrified fascination, my friend watched the waving hand of the actor as he delivered his lines, aware that an essential prop was missing. The gun he was supposed to be brandishing was nowhere in sight.

Hardly daring to breathe, my playwright friend sat rooted to her seat. And the show went on, as it must. The actors improvised as best they could to cover the blooper.

At the end, the audience applauded as Dorothy exhaled in relief. The next day's review was positive, saying only that the second act had been a bit slow to get off the ground.

This story struck me as a metaphor for life. We put an inordinate amount of attention on what goes wrong, while on the whole, things are moving along just fine.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Butterfly poses as earring

Nature is amazing. This butterfly lit on my friend Daphne's arm first, and then climbed up to her ear where it sat comfortably for quite some time.

This makes me wonder. Did Daphne do to something special to attract the butterfly?

Was it intending to communicate something to her?

Either way, it was a special privilege. Not many of us get to wear living earrings.

Photo by Trudy, 2010

Friday, October 15, 2010

"Still persuade us to rejoice"

The Vancouver International Film Festival wraps up today, after featuring repeat screenings of the best of the fest.

During this final phase of the VIFF, I had the good fortune to see Alan Gilsenan's The Yellow Bittern (2009), an Irish film about the life and times of Liam Clancy. Liam was the last survivor of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, an Irish folksinging group that was an international sensation in the late sixties.

The youngest Clancy, who narrated the film, lived just long enough to see it finished. A performing balladeer and a philosopher-poet in the Irish tradition, he was a lovely presence on screen. The director interwove Liam's narration with historic film and stills that gave context and wholeness to the heyday of the Clancy Brothers.

With one anecdote, Liam captured the flavour of his rural Irish childhood with "one foot in the Middle Ages." Too nervous for many days to perform the daily poetry lines of memory work in class, he finally overcame his stage fright and delivered a heartfelt rendition of Tennyson's Ulysses that brought tears to his teacher's eyes.

Keeping the boy back after class, Brother Rossiter asked him what he planned to do with his life. Young Liam said his mother wanted him to be a priest and his father thought he should be an insurance salesman. "My boy, you should be on the stage," the teacher said.

Some sixty years later, Liam Clancy once more evoked audience emotion by sonorously quoting Tennyson's memorable final lines, ending "to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield."

I recalled my long-forgotten teenage wall, with its hand-lettered lines from the same poem, which seemed to beckon me towards my own life: "There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail."

From the other end of his life, Liam Clancy looked back on the culture of the twentieth century. He spoke of World War II in which his older brothers served.

And he spoke of the racism that stopped both blacks and whites from attending a series of civil rights benefits the Clancys launched on the eastern seaboard of the US. Few Blacks would go to see Whitey, and many whites, Irish-Americans included, refused to attend performances of "Nigger-lovers," he said.

"When will they every learn?" Liam sang the immortal lines of Pete Seeger, and then adapted them, as folksingers will, "When will we ever learn? When will we ever learn?"

Alan Gilsenan was in the room to talk about the making of the film and answer questions. He spoke about sensing the presence of the spirits of Liam's dead brothers and Tommy Makem each time the film was screened. This occasion was particularly poignant, as it was the first showing since Liam's death. Of course his spirit was evoked.

Saying that he himself had a streak of the Irish melancholy, Gilsenan joked that Liam was looking down saying "Never mind the sentimental nonsense, just get on with it."

But I could relate. From my Celtic or Anglo-Saxon or Viking forbears, I too have inherited a melancholic tendency, accentuated perhaps by the early and constant exposure to the tragic ballads that were so prominent in the sixties music, soul sustenance of my youth.

Most likely it was this streak in my character that got me thinking as I left the theatre with a friend of similar age. Our generation was educated in the rhymed and metred poetry of the eras that preceded ours. We were followers of the ballads of the sixties, both traditional and composed.

When we are gone, will anyone still remember and love the poetic exhortation made by W.H. Auden as he addressed the soul of his departed fellow poet W. B. Yeats?

"With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice."

Monday, October 11, 2010

Teachable moment -- for readers and authors too

In class, we were discussing Roald Dahl's "Lamb to the Slaughter." The young wife wants to do everything for her husband, who is tired from a day at work. When he rises from his chair to pour himself a drink, the narrator tells us, his wife springs from hers and volunteers to get it for him.

"But why is she crying?" my student asked.

I was mystified. "She's not crying. What gives you that idea?"

When she pointed to the words "Mary cried," directly following the quotation, realization dawned.

"Oh," I said, "That's just a manner of speaking. It means "said." Sometimes writers use "cried" instead of "said." Lame explanation, I said silently to myself, but at the same time, I was relieved to note that the doubt and confusion had evaporated from my student's face.

At the same time, I remembered a piece of advice I have heard from many writers. Using said instead of fancier variations is a painless way of cleaning up prose. Not to mention making it more accessible to the legions of souls who grapple with English as a second or third language. After all, literature is universal. There is no reason why ESL learners should not be interested in tackling any writer's tales.

When we discuss literature in class, I tell my students that fiction has themes, not morals. But perhaps this little anecdote does have a moral: "said" says is a clearer dialogue than "cried" or "exclaimed." And in written communication, clarity is essential.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Hummingbird in the rain

Yesterday when I joined my friends for Thanksgiving dinner it was raining hard. But the weather was mild, and amid the final flurry of preparations for twenty people to dine buffet style, their kitchen door stood open to the back garden.

Hanging under the shelter of the small roof that covers the back steps is a hummingbird feeder. While our host finished carving the turkey, I stood briefly with my hostess looking out at the rainy garden. Within the comfort of long friendship, we gazed into the rain without speaking.

The hedged garden was populated as usual with Douglas squirrels and a variety of birds. First we watched the "Dougies,"as my friend calls them, as they scurried back and forth across the paving stones. Then I noticed the swooping of small birds against the dark green hedges.

"Don't move," Daphne's voice spoke quietly in my ear.

I followed her eyes and saw a hummingbird hovering near the feeder. We both stood still as the tiny bird came closer. Soon it was sipping nectar, first from the feeder, then from flowers in a hanging basket still in bloom.

I had never been so close to this tiny bird. Showing off its iridescent throat feathers while it whirred its wings and sipped with its long beak, the creature was only inches away. Truly a privileged glimpse of the bird world, and another reason for Thanksgiving.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Gearing up for Thanksgiving

This year I'll enjoy two Thanksgiving dinners -- today with some old and dear friends, and tomorrow at home. Not to mention the leftovers.

As usual, at the fresh free-range turkey place, I had to wait in line. They have a number card system and when they call your number and hand it over, they always say the same thing: "I'm just going to wash my hands and then I'll take your order."

Next door at Ocean Village produce I picked up the necessary accompaniments: potatoes, turnips, cranberries, brussels sprouts.

"Are you making a turkey?" The clerk was speaking to another customer, about my age.

"Yes," said the woman. "I've just got a small one this year. There will be only three of us." I turned and gave her a thumbs-up.

"Ditto," I said. The smile she returned was brimming with warm memories of other Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners cooked. I knew because I felt the same: each one prepared evokes the many similar seasonal dinners that went before.

We're not making pumpkin pie. If we were going to, I'd have to get the pumpkin in the pot this morning and do the pies this afternoon to give them time to chill. Preparations for these seasonal meals can take days, and that's as should be, part of the ritual. But we have some of the last Okanagan peaches of the season in the fridge, so those will become a crumble.

Still, I did buy a pumpkin yesterday, one of the small sweet ones. I've washed the mud off it (they're so fresh from the field) but the pie project will have to wait until next weekend. Maybe I'll skip the pie crust too, and make it a baked pumpkin custard.

These seasonal traditions are important markers. They adapt and adjust, but they carry on. Without the shopping spree for turkey, autumn vegetables and cranberries, it wouldn't be fall.

Tomorrow we'll be enjoying our annual Thanksgiving dinner. I'm grateful for the blessings of robust health, happy employment, and a snug home. Most of all, I relish the privilege of pausing in our busy lives to sit down once again to share this ritual meal with loved ones.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Kindred Souls, Knitting

As undergrads Joan and I were both English majors. Long before we met, my friend was studying at McGill while I was at UBC. At both universities, and quite unbeknownst to each other, since we weren't yet friends, we both used to sit in class and knit.

I had wanted to go to McGill, but dependent as I was on a scholarship, a loan and a prayer, I couldn't manage to get to Montreal to study. McGill was full of wonderful people. Joan remembers being greeted civilly on campus by the literary giant Hugh MacLennan, though she was not in his classes. John Grierson, father of documentary film and NFB founder was teaching there too.

Joan sat in Grierson's film course at the back of the largest hall on campus, knitting. She was mortified when she heard by chance that Grierson had remarked on this disgustedly to a colleague. Later in the term, when he publicly praised an excellent paper she wrote, she felt redeemed.

In those huge lectures, a lot of the marking was done by T.A.s; profs didn't know all their students. Though she wanted to go and introduce herself, explain to Grierson that she was both the knitter and the writer of that paper, and meant no disrespect, Joan was too shy.

Meanwhile at UBC, I did everything I could to avoid the larger classes, but I did register for The Philosophy of Science. A science class was a necessary requirement for graduating from the Faculty of Arts, and this one was mobbed by artsies. It was co-taught by David Suzuki, and I sat in the front row unabashedly knitting.

Knitting certainly didn't interfere with my enjoyment of that class. But what Suzuki thought of this I'll never know. He didn't say.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Behind the scenes at the opera

Vancouver Opera is about to launch a brand new commissioned work. In the early 1920s, the real Lillian Alling arrived in New York from Russia, passed through Ellis Island and started back toward Siberia.

With an English libretto, the opera Lillian Alling follows the Russian emigre as she undertakes a journey that begins in Brooklyn and takes her through Chicago and Winnipeg, eventually bringing her to Vancouver. From here she goes north to Telegraph Trail and Atlin.

With a friend who is a seasonal opera subscriber, I was privileged this evening to be given a glimpse behind the scenes. Following light refreshments in the lobby, we were ushered in to the mezzanine level to watch and listen to solos and choruses being rehearsed.

The opera is now moving into its final stages. The first performance will take place October 19 at the newly renovated Queen Elizabeth Theatre, with three more to follow.

While the director worked with some performers, others wandered around the theatre, drinking coffee while awaiting their turns. The set was skeletal and unadorned. When Lillian knocked at a door, it opened like a real one, but we could see through the unenclosed walls.

I am impressed and amazed when I think of the incredible amount of planning and cooperation that goes into an elaborate production like this. It all began as a someone's idea. Steadily, with a staggering amount of faith and communication, the initial vision is being brought to fruition.

On Opera Night, I'll be there to witness the result.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Porch sitting season winds down

It happens each year just around Thanksgiving. The time of sitting out on the back porch is over for the season. Every year I think the same thing: Why did we rush around so much? Why didn't we enjoy sitting outside more often?

Some time in the next couple of weeks, the chair cushions will have to be brought indoors and the patio umbrella furled and put away. The summer is definitely transforming into autumn. The blue and purple asters and fall crocuses have are blooming along the drive, and the potted pink geranium is enjoying a final burst of brilliant bloom before the frost.

I will enjoy sitting outside with my book and my tea as long as I can. Though there is no longer the heat of summer to absorb, there is now the crisp fresh smell of falling leaves. It's soothing to hear the squirrels running along the branches of the cottonwoods, rattling the crisp leaves with their little feet.

The signs of autumn are clear and swift. In the parking lot at the train station, the maple trees have turned from glossy green to deep red in just the last couple of weeks.

Thought the mornings are now chilly, and sometimes misty, the afternoons are still lovely, even though they are noticeably shorter.

I intend to enjoy sitting out on the porch for as long as I can before the season ends.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Tantamount, paramount, catamount

Photo from Skinny Moose

I woke up thinking of the word tantamount. What part of speech is it? I discussed this question with my daughter, a linguist. It is an adjective, she confirmed, but of a special kind. It only follows the be verb and never features in the subject portion of a sentence.

In view of its structural similarity, a parallel case should be the adjective paramount, but it’s not. This one has no prepositional companion, and it is allowed to appear in front of a noun.

The kicker is catamount, a noun meaning lynx or cougar. Not only are these three similar words wildly divergent in meaning and usage, each represents a different part of speech.

So why are these words so similar? We English teachers tell our students to look for word structure patterns to use as context clues, but this can be a frustrating quest. Just as you think you’ve found a pattern, exceptions start jumping out of the woodwork.

No wonder it’s so hard to teach this language to those with other mother tongues. As for how these people learn it, that’s quite simply a miracle. The real translation of ESL should be English is a Strange Language.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Thatched Mother

As a newly trained young ESL teacher, I was quite ready to believe the gospels of the experts, and adopt their magical methodologies for teaching English. The cloze passage was such a method. It was supposed to reveal a student's level of reading skill.

This is how it worked. The teacher took any reading passage and replaced every seventh word with a blank. Then the student filled in the blanks. When marking clozes, teachers were told it was important to accept only the original word as a correct answer.

I began to see the limitations of this assessment tool when I used a passage containing a sentence from a British text book, the title of which I cannot remember: "Tom lived _________ a small house with a thatched _____________."

The student was able to supply the preposition, but for the noun he used the word "mother." I didn't feel right counting this answer wrong, especially when, as far as I knew, neither in this country nor the country where the student grew up were there any thatched roofs.

At the same time, I recognized that he had missed the significance of the indefinite article. One does not establish family life with "a" mother, just any mother, no matter what kind of house one lives in.

Methodology comes and goes, but the very basic need for communication between the teacher and student remains, and how that plays out depends on personalities and circumstances. There is no textbook method that works every time.

Thus teaching is always a creative activity.