Tuesday, March 5, 2024

There’s No Right Way to Write

Most people are familiar with the expression, “If you meet the Budha on the road, kill him”. I recommend the same approach to anything you meet that claims to be the definitive guide to creative writing.

There are important rules of the road, to be sure, and practices that have stood the test of time, but the idea that there is one ideal process is an illusion that sends many a writer off on a wild goose chase instead of owning what works best for them.

The reason no one system works for everyone is simple: A standard formula requires standard ingredients, and there’s nothing less standard than what an author has to work with: their conscious, their unconscious, and the world as they know it. What’s more, getting these three ingredients to work together can sometimes feel like driving a troika whose members have the synchrony of an ostrich, a camel and a crocodile.

It takes a lifetime to get to know one’s own troika, and what works with mine might send yours careening off course. (At the moment, my ostrich wants to take this analogy and run with it, but maybe another time!)

Who Calls the Shots?

Two of these ingredients – our conscious and our unconscious – pose a dilemma for the writer. If we depend too heavily on the conscious, in the sense of charging forward with images and ideas we have in hand, the best we can hope for is the written equivalent of elevator music – a nice, fleshed out-version of the story line, with perhaps a touch of clever.

I ‘found’ a poem some years ago in The French Lieutenant’s Woman (pp 95–98), that gives John Fowles’ take on this aspect of writing:

The novelist you say knows all;

Only pull the strings and puppets will behave.

But, fill a book with reasons -

Vanity, amusement, curiosity -

Why novelists write

All true but not true of all

Only one is shared:

To create worlds as real as the one that is,

But other.


The world is organism, not machine,

Independent of creator –

A planned world, a dead world –

And characters begin to live that disobey.

The only good god is freedom

That allows other freedoms to exist;

And standing next to God,

The novelist.

The author as scribe with a front row seat, capturing what happens when characters get a chance to be themselves; certainly not the conventional image of the author as an omnipotent commander.

It wasn’t uncommon during the years I was writing the Two Roads Home series to be replaying dialogue in my head and have one of the characters go off script, or to have something unforeseen happen in my mind’s eye that changed the course of the story. It felt very much like being along for the ride instead of in the driver’s seat, and with my ego shunted unceremoniously aside, those have been among the most exciting, rewarding occasions in my writing experience.

Let’s not kid ourselves, though: depending on the unconscious to deliver the goods through imagination, dreams or free association can leave us either waiting for Godot, or trying to make sense of a jumble of images and ideas with as much order as the flotsam along a high tide line.

The Muse Helps Those Who Help Themselves

Frida Kahlo said, “I am my own muse.” Wow! Most of us can’t let go of the idea of some external embodiment of inspiration but even with such a symbol, the goods come from within. The trick is to find that condition, those circumstances, in which we can tap into both the conscious and the unconscious.

How do I remain proactive in the writing process but not kid myself about what I can do without the help of resources beyond my control? What does it take to make the unconscious feel welcome? I have found three helpful tools: repetition, receptivity, and research.

       i.          Repetition.

What do attorneys, detectives and psychotherapists have in common? They ask you to repeat your story, sometimes over and over again. Unless you’re suspected of deceit, they use this method because they know that, as our mind settles into a subject, it begins to recall more detail and make more associations – not unlike one’s eyes getting used to the light in a dark room.

It’s not unusual for me to reread a passage – even an incomplete sentence – or play a scene over in my mind twenty times. Frustrating as hell to end up in the same place again and again, but sometimes the tumblers drop and my ‘out of nowhere’ delivers a different word, a different view, a different thought about what’s going on. Or it might just say, “Just a minute; the problem is somewhere else.” Either way, it pays off with a richer outcome.

     ii.          Receptivity.

The muse is unlikely to want to share your head with a neighbor’s lawnmower or Breaking News on CNN. And it takes more than a cup of coffee to make way for her if you’re tired or preoccupied. I’m not talking about retreating to an ashram; just give the writing process the same attention and alertness you’d give any other important mental exercise.

You’ve probably noticed that there are particular times or places in your day when ideas are more likely to come out of nowhere. For me, it’s in the moments after I first wake up. Linger a few moments in those times and places, and keep a pen and notepad nearby.

And there’s something else about this receptive state: you can’t turn it on and off like a light switch if the phone rings or your partner reminds you about some errand you promised to run. How you negotiate that particular issue is another story, but minutes become hours when you’re in that space. So unless you want to become Exhibit A for ‘writers are selfish’, some bargaining with others in your life is in order.   

   iii.          Research.

The world as defined by our knowledge and experience is a shallow version of what actually surrounds us, whether we’re talking about philosophy, internal combustion engines or whole wheat bread. OK, some of our dioramas might have Smithsonian detail, others may resemble first grade homework assignments, but there’s always room to broaden and deepen our awareness of any part of the world we live in.

It’s all well and good to be guided by the axiom to ‘write what you know’, but that doesn’t rule out taking the time to learn more about it. In fact, digging around at the edges of the familiar has been so productive of ideas and images for me that I’m tempted to make an axiom out of it.

I think what happens in this process is not only the discovery of new facts and perspectives, but it’s almost as if it sets in motion a parallel rummaging among the synapses of our brain, and associations are exposed that lead us to memories and instincts that we may not recognize, or that may even have preceded us.

So, click on items around the Google entry you started with, chase synonyms, contemporary events, names – let curiosity call the shots and see where it takes you. (This is probably a good point to recall the note above, about minutes becoming hours!)  

At some point you’ll have to reign yourself in and get back to the query you started with, but what some may call distraction can be the source of new levels of authenticity and insight in your work.

The Emperor’s Clothes

A brief note in passing: if you use some form of chemical inducement in your courtship of the muse – a drink, a smoke, or whatever - be sure to look carefully at the gifts from your trip before you share them too widely. Your insight or inspiration could have felt in the moment like a whole new wardrobe but, in the cold light of day, the emperor may be as naked as a jaybird.


I think a piece of writing has three lives:

  • One that matures with the light of day - its clarity, scope and coherence;
  • One that evolves with the writer’s discovery of themselves – its validity and insight;
  • One that finds its place on the shelves of time – its relevance.

… and the intriguing thing in terms of process? They are all unfinished business.



Sunday, March 3, 2024

Winter in the Byward Farmers Market

As a boy during the Depression, my father stood in Ottawa’s Byward Market with his father, selling eggs and chickens from a modest family flock. In June or July, the worst thing about these Saturday routines would probably have been the boredom and the thought of what he might be missing out on because of this tedious business of helping the family keep body and soul together.

But in January and February, it would have been a different story: The truck seat, cold and hard beneath him as they traveled through the sub-zero morning darkness; the anxious search to claim a good spot on the perimeter of the pavilion; The effort to clear it of snow, arrange cartons of eggs on the tailgate, and set up the chopping block and wobbly plucking table; the fight with frozen canvas to make a wind break around the crated birds.

By mid-morning the sun would be strong enough to begin to melt snow from shed roofs and window ledges, and send rivulets of icy water through the slush in search of leaky boots and frayed gloves. It would tease the backs of raw chapped hands at the plucking table and lure the boy into brief catnaps between customers.

By late afternoon, as the sun retreats up the side of the buildings across William Street, the temperature again drops quickly. Toes can no longer fight the soaking cold. Chickens fade into a listless trance and as their feathers ruffle and their heads droop, they lose any appeal to the dwindling crowd that trudges past. Grandpa’s mood darkens as these late-day shoppers push him with ever-decreasing stocks of civility for a give-away deal. They know he must accept at least some of their offers to scrounge the last dollar from the day.

As hope of additional sales fades, crates and tools would be broken free of the ice and loaded back onto the truck, to the refrain of familiar unspoken questions. Is this more or less than we took home last week? How much money did we make? 

Will the truck start?   

Will there be dry socks in the laundry hamper?

What’s left on the stove?  

Saturday, February 24, 2024

Star Travel - Micronesia

Author’s note: In the late 1970s I assisted the government of the Marshall Islands to prepare the development plan used to negotiate its independence from the USA. With 750,000 square miles of territory and only 56 square miles of land, you can imagine the role the sea plays in the economy and the culture of the Marshallese. One of my counterparts was a traditional navigator, probably the last in his clan.

The king mackerel struck the gunnel hard as it came flailing into the canoe. When exhaustion finally overtook it, the young Marshallese pinned the fish beneath his foot and removed the hook. Then he reached down and, with both hands, lifted his catch into the air. 

“Thank you,” he said, looking from the fish to the sea. 

            “It’s a good fish, Grandfather. Now my aching belly won’t keep me from seeing the Way.” There was no reply from the large bundle strapped to the platform between the canoe and the outrigger. Amata placed his thumb at the base of the mackerel’s head and, using a rag to protect his hand from the jagged teeth, forced the head back and dispatched the fish.

            He had eaten the last of the Spam with some broken pieces of soda cracker two days earlier, so the bite-sized chunks of firm flesh that he cut from the fish went down too easily. He had passed ‘enough’ and was well on the way to ‘too much’ before the Wisdom spoke. Three days from the nearest land, at least three to his destination. He couldn’t afford to get sick and he needed to preserve his food. Reluctantly, he wrapped the mackerel in the canvass gunny sack and placed it beneath the forward seat. If he was lucky, he would get another day of eating out of it before it turned.

“I think I’ll rest a while before I raise the sail again,” he said to the bundle.

            His grandfather had been the Navigator of the Grouper Clan and, from the age of ten, Amata had spent hundreds of hours at the feet of the old man, learning the old ways: how currents, waves and wind weave an intricate pattern of movement for anything drifting on the water, how clouds and birds tell a tale of land beyond the horizon, and how seaweed reveals the secrets of a nearby reef. To travel in this world, all the People needed were a sail and a rudder.  And with each nightfall the stars would report their location and point the way to their destination. Tonight, Amata knew that Hoku’ula would appear just above the horizon, off the stern, and Ka Mole Hanna directly abeam on the left side.

            Remembering all that his grandfather taught him had been difficult enough, but the hardest part of becoming a Navigator had been teaching his eyes to see and his body to feel the subtle changes in the sea. Those changes could mean the difference between reaching a destination and disappearing in the vast expanse of the Nema.

Sometimes the old man would lower the sail and let the little tipnol canoe drift in the open sea. “Tell me when something changes,” he would say.

“Like what?” Amata had asked the first time.

“That’s not for me to say,” his grandfather countered. “If someone has to bait your hook, are you really a fisherman?  Just tell me when something changes.” And there had followed many times, many days when the youngster would fidget and look about impatiently as the canoe drifted and the old man sat in silence. The nights were better because at least he could track the stars as they were reeled across the sky between Polaris and the Southern Cross. 

Then came the day when he first felt the kaelib. “There! There!” he whispered excitedly as the subtle ocean swell nudged the tipnol, so gently that even the fishermen of the clan could not have detected it. When they beached the canoe near the village that evening, his grandfather had said, “Now I know that one day you will be a Navigator”.  

            Amata checked the lashings on the bundle and rested his hand where his grandfather’s shoulder would be. “I’m sorry I couldn’t give you some of the fish,” he said, and then added with a chuckle, “But you probably weren’t hungry anyhow.” His eyes wandered toward the horizon. “By the way, I know we’re a little off course, but don’t worry about it; the sun will set soon, just to the right of Ajna, so it will be easy to adjust our heading.” 

The gentle lap of water against the hull of the canoe marked the minutes as the sun settled toward the sea. Nightfall would come quickly now, and Amata used the time to make sure everything on board was in order.   

            In recent years, as his grandfather began to fail, he had talked of a place far to the south-west, beyond the Atolls of the People, beyond the navigation charts that he had come to know. Lijinmaloklok, he called it, the Place Where the Seas Meet, and wistfully he would say, “That’s where I will go on my final journey”.

If it wasn’t on the traditional navigation charts, Amata thought, and no one else had ever spoken of it, maybe Lijinmaloklok only existed in the old man’s imagination. So he hadn’t pursued the subject when it came up, beyond a polite question or two. But then one day when they were returning to the village from a lesson in the lagoon, his grandfather had said, “Wait a minute. There’s something I want to show you”.

Amata had waited on the front step of the little frame house until his grandfather returned, carrying an old navigation chart. Handing the intricate platter-sized mat of palm leaf ribs and shells to the boy, he had said, “Tell me what you see”.  

There was some damage to the chart; it looked like a stick or two might be missing, but Amata began to recount the story it told of winds and currents around the islands.

“Never mind all that,” his grandfather said impatiently. “Look over here”, and he pointed to one side of the chart, far beyond the Atolls of the People, where two sets of thin arched ribs converged in a pattern Amata had never seen.

“But such a thing is not possible,” he said, “The chart must be wrong. Maybe it was made by a coconut planter to sell to the tourists”.

“No, it was first made by my grandfather’s grandfather. The seas do meet at Lijinmaloklok,” he said. “They descend together beyond the reef and when they are reborn they leave as one in a new direction. The ancestors passed that way on the Great Journey. It was there that the seas told the Navigator how to find the Atolls of the People.” 

            Long moments had passed in silence as Amata absorbed what he had heard, and the old man waited. Finally, he had reached to take the chart from Amata and, as he turned to go back inside, had said, “I hope the next Navigator of the Grouper Clan will take me to Lijinmaloklok on my final journey”.    

            A change in the sea swell during the night had pushed the tipnol to the west so, as the stars faded in the pre-dawn light, Amata steered gently back toward the south and settled the bow beneath the last glow of Ke Ali’i. 

            “There, Grandfather. We’re back on course,” he said. Stowing the last of the gear for the day’s sailing, he continued. “I wish you could be there when I get home, to explain to the elders why I took you from the viewing place, and why I stole the tipnol. Maybe they will say ‘thank you’ to me for giving you your final wish, but I don’t think so. I think I will be sleeping with the pigs for many seasons.” He chuckled to himself. “By the way,” he added, “there was so much celebration at your party that everyone had fallen asleep. It wasn’t difficult to carry you away from them”. After another pause he shrugged and said, “At least I will have a good story to tell my grandchildren someday.”

            With sunrise, the breeze freshened. The sail filled gently, and the little hull began to cut purposefully through the water once again, as surely as if it could still see Ke Ali’i over the bow.


Tuesday, February 13, 2024

One-of-a-Kind English Teacher

One of the people who had an important influence on my writing was a beatnik Englishman who found himself teaching freshman English in Montreal in the early 1960’s. I can still picture him walking toward class in his tweed jacket, baggy pants and sandals, lost in some train of thought known only to him.

He seemed to take a special delight in debunking every rule of language I cited in rebuke of his situational approach to grammar, but by the end of the semester he had won me over. It was OK to break a rule, but I’d better know the rule and why I was breaking it; otherwise it was just bad English. I guess the rest of the faculty didn't agree with his approach, though, because he wasn't there the next year.

One thing does still trouble me about him: his only concession to winter as he moved about campus was to throw a scarf around his neck and wear socks in his sandals.

Sunday, January 28, 2024

The Morning Side Book Reaches Top 10

Looks like we're in good company. The Morning Side is #40 on Amazon's list of the top 100 books about the 1960s. Stop the press: A day later we're up to #23! And again, it made it to #5.