In a Word, Art

This may be hard for you to believe, but I swear it is true.  No less an author than Margaret Atwood—a colossus among not only Canadian writers, but writers the world over, who has published at least sixty books over the past sixty years—has won only four more of Canada’s major literary prizes than I have.  Only four!

That’s remarkable, considering that over the past twelve years, I have published a mere eleven books—six novels, four collections of tales, and one anthology of poetry—although there is a seventh novel and fifth book of tales on the way.

While it’s true that not one of mine has been nominated for a Giller Prize, a Governor-General’s Award, or a Booker Prize, Atwood has garnered only one of the first, two of the second, and one of the third.

Not an insurmountable lead, perhaps, if I keep plugging away.

I am jesting, of course.  Whether the reason for this awards-discrepancy is the considered judgment of the Canadian literati, the fact that Atwood has a much larger canon of work than I, the possibility that she is actually a better writer, or all of the above (the likely cause), there is really no competition.

In fact, art is not about competing.

I have never spoken with Atwood, so I cannot say for sure.  But it may be that, deep down, she writes for the same reasons I do—not to win awards, but to entertain readers; not to become famous, but to satisfy the innate urge to create something that never existed before; not because it’s a job or livelihood, but because it’s fulfilling!

The awards may be just icing on the cake, although they are some icing!

I have spoken with other authors over the years, and with artists of all stripes, none of whom has ever reached the level of fame that Atwood has. These artists are painters, sculptors, potters, singers, songwriters, dancers, actors—all of them doing what they do for the love of their art.

Some have won ribbons and prizes along the way, some have had their works juried into prestigious exhibitions, some have even sold many of their creations.  But almost without fail, they tell me the joy they derive from their work is not from those final outcomes; instead, they say, the true pleasure flows from the process of conceiving and playing with a brand-new idea, developing and nurturing it, striving to transform the fledgling concept into reality.

In a word, art.

I do not belong to a writers’ guild, nor do I attend writers’ workshops to share my work with others.  I prefer to lose myself, by myself, in the various, fictional worlds I devise—godlike as I form, destroy, and re-form what is to happen, engrossed in my endeavours to create the perfect story.  Being alone like that can be lonely sometimes.

Happily, however, I have a kindred soul with whom I am very close—an artist who creates beautiful, one-of-a-kind works in dichroic glass, clay, and wood.

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We disappear from each other’s environs for hours on end, both of us impelled by the same creative urges that drive artists of every sort.  And when we come back together, we regale each other—usually over a glass of wine—with the trials and triumphs we’ve experienced in our latest efforts.

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Neither of us can do what the other does, of course.  Our strivings and struggles, like our talents, are quite different.  But there is a shared understanding between us of the challenges we encounter, of the need to persevere, of the importance of releasing whatever is trying to burst forth from our creative cocoons.

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And while we both celebrate the finish of each work, we find we still must deal with a pang of disappointment that the quest is over.  At least until the next is begun.

What emerges is not always perfect—hardly ever, in fact.  But as Atwood herself has said, “If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.”

So, it is the process, not the product, that matters most of all.  With my storytelling, I never want to actually finish a novel; there is, no matter how many times I re-read each successive draft, an urge to continue to rework it.  So, to save my sanity, I no longer try to finish.  Instead, I simply stop when it seems best.  And there the books sit for all to read, to judge, to praise or condemn.

1 Precept cover  4 Killed Her cover  6 Lockdown cover  7 Harm cover  9 Missing cover  11 Dying Cover

Would I like to win a literary prize for something I write?  Well, yes, I think that would be quite gratifying.  But is that the motivation to continue writing, the hope that such a prize might be part of my future?  That I might close the gap between me and the redoubtable Margaret Atwood?

No.  I do not write for that purpose, nor do any of the artists I know pursue their passions for such transient glory.  They do have a reason, though, for pursuing the quest.

In a word, art.

Why Write?

What we’ve got hee-uh…is fail-yuh to commun’cate!

That statement appeared in the screenplay of a 1967 movie, Cool Hand Luke, spoken by the warden of a prison in Florida to a chain-gang worker who insisted on challenging his authority.  In the context of the movie, it was a great line.

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That warden, played by Strother Martin, knew communication is a two-way process, involving both an expressive and receptive party.  If either of the two is missing, it can be argued that communication does not occur.  In the movie, it was obvious to the exasperated warden that the convict, played by Paul Newman, was not receiving the intended message.

However, when someone expresses an idea that does strike a response from another, be it in agreement or rebuttal, the two have succeeded in communicating.  And with any luck, both will learn from the exchange.

Friends, acquaintances, and other readers of my work often ask me why I write.  Some seem puzzled by the fact that, day after day, week after week, I continue to pound the keyboard, churning out thoughts about things that matter to me.

On the surface, it’s a simple question, so I generally offer a simple answer.  “Well, I enjoy it,” is all I might say.

But occasionally, when I pause to think about the question myself, I discover it can be quite profound.  And the answer is tied directly to the notion of communicating.

Millions and millions of people worldwide consider themselves readers.  No matter what they read, or how often, or for what purpose, they are consumers of the written word.  But without the writers of those words, there would be nothing to read.

I remember an experience several years ago that helped me come to grips with why I feel compelled to write.  Riding a subway car in the city, I was struck by the fact that so many of my fellow-commuters were reading.  People would enter the train at each station, settle themselves comfortably in an open seat, and begin to read—all with hardly a glance at the folks around them.  Books, magazines, newspapers, cellphones, all capturing the attention of their owners.

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One man in particular caught my eye.  Leafing through a newspaper, appearing not to be reading anything too carefully, he paused on each page only long enough to determine whether to give more than passing attention to any of the articles.  Watching from across the aisle, I smugly assumed he might be one of those who checks only headlines and picture captions—but I was wrong.

After a quick once-over of a page containing a number of articles, he began to read one of them in earnest.  From my vantage, I could see the effect on him of what he was reading.  His very posture changed in his seat.  His facial expressions ranged from quizzical to credulous, from a smile of agreement to a frown of disapproval.  At one point, he stopped, cocked his head back to stare at the ceiling of the subway car, apparently thinking about what he had just read.

And that’s when I knew.  That’s why I write!

I had witnessed the communication of ideas and opinions from the writer of that article to the reader, although neither would ever meet the other.  The writer had reached the reader and elicited a response.  Across the cosmic void, communication had taken place.

In the writing I do—novels, collections of tales, poetry, blog-posts—I have no knowledge of the reactions of my readers to anything I write, save for when people post a comment on my blog, or send me an email, or ‘follow’ me online.  Many of those follows come from faraway nations, from people I will never know.

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But that’s not the point.  It’s my hope, my belief, that whether or not people choose to contact me, they will respond to my writing as I saw the man on the subway respond.  That is what provides the primary motivation to write.

It’s the urge to touch someone, to spark a sense of recognition, to provide a moment of enjoyment.  And most of all, it’s to provoke a response—even if I never know of it firsthand—so that what we’ll have here is a forum to communicate.

It matters to me.

Repeat Again!

In my personal opinion, it was an unexpected surprise to each individual person to see an armed gunman circling around the fenced-in enclosure where the invited guests had gathered together.  The uninvited intruder, although separated off from them, was in their close proximity, which presented a difficult dilemma as to how they possibly might escape to freedom.

Did the two sentences above capture your interest, alarm you, perhaps?  Or did they bog you down with verbosity?

If the latter, how would you rewrite it?

One of the outcomes desired by most writers is clarity through brevity.  Do not use ten words to say what might be said more effectively with fewer.  As an example, read the same two sentences, revised to eliminate redundancy.

In my opinion, it was a surprise to each person to see a gunman circling the enclosure where the guests had gathered.  The intruder, although separated from them, was in their proximity, which presented a dilemma as to how they might escape.

In conversation, it’s easy (and forgivable) to utter redundancies because talking is generally spontaneous.  Writing, however—particularly if it is to be published—is subject to editing.  Whereas speech is heard at the moment it is uttered, affording no chance to amend it, published writing is seen only after it has been scrutinized for errors.

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How often have you heard people say things like: I’m absolutely certain…or here’s an added bonus…or the consensus of opinion…?

How many times have you caught yourself saying: past history…or they were few in number…or those are basic fundamentals…?

I say things like that all the time.

Occasionally, I allow them in my writing, as well, but only for style purposes—that’s my official explanation, anyway.  Truth be told, there are times when unplanned redundancies find their way into a finished essay, even after the application of a rigorous editing.

Here is an example of both, taken from a recent post on this blog—

tallandtruetales

Hot air, flights of fancy, and roads not taken…

Over the past twenty years, the political landscape in many of the so-called free, democratic countries of the world has become more contentious, more rancorous, more partisan than I can ever remember it.

The word free is unnecessary as a modifier for democratic; of the world is unnecessary after countries; ever is not needed ahead of remember; all were unintended.  However, my use of contentious, rancorous, and partisan in the same sentence was deliberate for emphasis.

Here’s another example from a different post—

When music is added to words, the result can provide a tremendous, emotional impact for an audience fortunate enough to be part of it. 

The word tremendous is not needed to modify impact; the phrase fortunate enough to be part of it is unnecessary to clarify audience.

And here is one more example from my blog—

I’d be well offshore when the sun brought the forest alight in greens, bouncing and careening its way through the translucent leaves.  Dark shade-spots would climb the stretching tree-trunks, dance across leaves turned to face the morning light, and then suddenly vanish.

The words bouncing and careening were deliberately used to convey the sense of helter-skelter as the sunrise broke through the forest; the word suddenly, although not needed to modify vanish, was likewise used purposely to emphasize the quickness of the change.  The word dark, redundant in describing shade-spots, snuck in unintended, although I confess to liking it descriptively.

There are times when I write clinically, as a reporter might, describing only the bones of the subject.  On other occasions, I write descriptively, as a water-colourist might paint, portraying imagery above facts.  Both have their place.  It is in the second mode, however, that redundancies are more likely to intrude.

Still, the best writers are able to craft beautiful descriptions without a plethora of words, and that remains a worthwhile objective for lesser ones such as I.

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Compare these two examples, one from a writing workshop, the other from the Bible, describing a man’s grief.  The first reads—

The middle-aged, forty-five-year-old man was sobbing and crying. Wet tears streamed down his cheeks, his whole face was red, and he screamed loudly at the very top of his lungs. His upper body and shoulders wracked and contorted with every sob that forced its way out, chest rising and falling as he gasped for breath.  He closed his eyes shut, balling his hands into clenched fists each time he threw his head back to let out a blood-curdling scream.

The second reads—

Jesus wept.

Each reader may decide which of the two is more powerful.  But the first could be rendered less verbose by eliminating a few redundant words and phrases; read the passage without the parts underlined in bold—

The middle-aged, forty-five-year-old man was sobbing and crying. Wet tears streamed down his cheeks, his whole face was red, and he screamed loudly at the very top of his lungs. His upper body and shoulders wracked and contorted with every sob that forced its way out, chest rising and falling as he gasped for breath.  He closed his eyes shut, balling his hands into clenched fists each time he threw his head back to let out a blood-curdling scream.

Of course, none of this is of import to people uninterested in writing.  But even if you are one of those, you might enjoy listening for redundant phrases in the conversations going on around you—

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actual experience; advance notice; ask a question; completely filled; end result; enter in; false pretense; first began; free gift; plan ahead; postpone until later; revert back; still remains; usual custom.

And don’t forget the title of this post—

Repeat Again!

Grandpa’s Grammar

Your per-nunky-ayshun is her-ibble!

So spake my grandfather once upon a time, admonishing me—perhaps five years old at the time—when I mispronounced a word while talking with him.  I remember dissolving in laughter, delighted by the strange words coming from his mouth.

Language, and its proper usage, were important to him.  An accomplished calligrapher, a voracious reader, and an avocational writer, he was forever dwelling on the importance of speaking and writing correctly.

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Years later, as a young teacher, I carried on that same tradition by including grammar lessons in my pupils’ daily curriculum.  When I became a father, I continued the practice in conversations with our daughters.

Neither my wife nor I favoured the inane baby-talk that was so prevalent among parents back then as they communicated with their children.  Right from the beginning, we resolved to speak to the girls in proper sentences, expressing complete thoughts, using correct terminology, pronouncing words properly.  Most of it probably went over their heads in the beginning, of course, but we definitely set an expectation in their minds that effective communication was important.

Along the way, I made time to tell them of the various quirks and anomalies of the English language.  Making a game of it, or including it in story-times, helped, I think, to convey the lessons.

I’d explain to them about adverbs and adjectives, and how they’re used.  “Adverbs usually, but not always, end in ‘ly’,” I’d say.  “So, you don’t run quick or slow, you run quickly or slowly.  You don’t dress nice, you dress nicely.  Get it?”

“Huh?” their quizzical expressions would seem to say.

“You can feel good,” I might continue, “but you’re never doing good.  You’re doing well.  And, you’re never doing poor, but you could be doing poorly.”

“But, you’re always saying I eat too fast,” the eldest once said.  “Does that mean I’m eating too fastly?”

At that point, I launched into an apology for all the exceptions to the rules in English exposition.

Spelling and vowel-sounds were often challenging, as well, when I’d lead them through the pronunciation of such lookalike words as: through (long u sound), tough (short u sound), although (long o sound), cough (short o sound), and plough (sounds like ow).

For a long time, we enjoyed playing a silly-sounds game, asking each other to correct the mispronounced words in sentences like this: ‘Althoo my meat was toe, I got thruff most of it.’

To many of our friends, parents themselves, my emphasis on grammar and spelling likely seemed fetishist, even obsessive.

“I could care less about that stuff,” they often said to me.

“No,” I’d reply, “I think what you mean is that you couldn’t care less.  If you could care less, it would mean you consider it important.”

Most of them would roll their eyes and drop the subject.

Lesson-01

Pronunciation was always the main issue, though.  In time, the girls would recognize and laugh at obvious mistakes they’d hear on the radio or television, from speakers who ought to have known better.

“That guy said Nagra Falls, Daddy,” one might say.  “It should be Ni-a-ga-ra, right?”

Her sister might pipe up, “I heard someone talk about the nu-cu-lar bomb, instead of nu-cle-ar!”

“How about this one?” the first might say.  “We don’t eye-urn our clothes, we i-ron them.”

“Yeah, and there are no taggers in the zoo; they’re ti-gers.”

I suppose it was Grandpa’s grammar lessons that imprinted on me, and led me to become so insistent on proper language usage.

But, what about the situation today, I wonder, when so much of our verbal and written communication is made up of verbal shortcuts?

abbreviations

Is the proper usage of language still important?

So many times now, I hear people say something like this in conversation: “So, she goes, ‘I like your dress.’  And I go, ‘Thanks!’  Then, she goes, ‘It’s nice.’”

Can they not use the correct word, as in ‘She said…’ and ‘I said…’?

It’s common anymore to hear someone say ‘What?’, not ‘Pardon?’ when they haven’t heard me; ‘Fer Shurr!’, not ‘For sure!’ when they’re certain of something; or, ‘It don’t matter!’, not ‘It doesn’t matter!’ when asked if everything is okay.

To me, it does matter.

Still, in the grand scheme of life, perhaps it no longer counts if our language continues to be used correctly and in its purest form.  It is a living thing, after all, and should, therefore, be expected to evolve over time, adapting to technology and 5G capabilities.

spelling

But, so much of the first impression we convey to others about ourselves is wrapped up in how we speak, and in how we sound to others.  So much about our intellect and learning is tied up in how we write.  I have trouble accepting that grammar, spelling, syntax, diction, and pronunciation may no longer be valuable in our human discourse.

My grandfather told me over and over that our language should always be held in respect, and used in its highest form.  And I, a child at his knee, believed him.

“Otherwise,” he’d say, a mischievous twinkle in his eye, “it will be a true cattas-troffy!

Write Lots

write, write, and rewrite—

write until it doesn’t sound

like writing at all

writing

Haiku is a very short form of Japanese poetry, altered over time to fit the demands of the English language.  The essence of haiku is represented by the juxtaposition of two images or ideas and a break between them, a kind of verbal punctuation mark that signals the separation, and colours the manner in which the juxtaposed elements are related.

Traditional haiku consist of seventeen syllables, rendered in English in three phrases of five, seven, and five syllables, respectively.  The lines usually do not rhyme, although many haiku composers try to rhyme the first and last phrases as an additional challenge.

A three-word haiku poem is extremely difficult, but a lot of fun to attempt.

Here are some more samples by me, a keen neophyte, accompanied by pictures for my own pleasure—

nightmares waken me,

phantom fears that something lurks—

banished by the dawn

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comes dawn, the new day,

rising full of hope unspoiled,

banishing the night

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shoulder to shoulder,

a capella voices raised—

united in song

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shore birds by the pond

visible in dawn’s first light—

stalking careless fish

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unrelentingly

under-appreciated—

mediocrity

mediocrity

And a final one—

write lots and often,

share most of it with readers—

prose and poetry

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A Writer’s View

I’m occasionally asked about the art of writing by those who read my blog-posts and books, but I’m usually caught off-guard, quite unprepared to give a cogent answer.  I was better primed for an industry online interview, however—an edited transcript of which is shared in this post.

Q. What is it you enjoy most about writing?

I enjoy the freedom to do whatever I want in the first-draft stages—creating credible characters, inventing dialogue, describing events, contriving plausible story-lines.

But even more, I enjoy the rewriting, where I can change things, reconstruct situations, alter outcomes.  I love having the opportunity to shape and re-shape the fictional world I’ve created in each story—almost like a wizard, going back in time with the power to change what originally happened.

wizard

Q. What is your writing process?

I write everything down as soon as possible after it occurs to me —essays, short stories, blog-posts, episodes for my novels—sometimes in the wee, small hours of the morning when the thoughts tumbling in my brain won’t let me sleep.  Later, when the frenzy of first-draft has abated, I rewrite them to see where, or if, they fit in the overall picture.

I often spend hours on end in the process, even to the point of missing lunch or dinner.  I’m amazed when I discover that four or five hours might have passed before I paused for breath, so to speak. For me, writing is an alternate universe, one in which I easily lose myself.

Q. Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?

I remember the first story I wrote as an adult.  It was titled The Leaving, and was included in two of my published collections of tales.  It told of the conflicting joy and sadness associated with the realization that my two daughters were growing up, leaving their childhood behind.  It was predicated on a credo my wife and I adopted in their upbringing—hug them close, then let them go.  The hugging was easy, of course; the letting-go not so much.

hugging

Q. What prompted you to try writing a novel?

In the beginning, it was an attempt to answer the question as to whether or not I could do it.  And it took a long time to figure out—five years from inception to publication.  I was hoping to accomplish a number of things, the first being just to finish it; while I had been writing stories and poetry for a long time, I had never attempted a novel.

Additionally, I wanted to tell a story that would prove difficult for readers to resist.  I wanted to relate that story mainly through dialogue among the characters—in their respective voices.  I discovered, however, that the telling of some events had to be in my own narrator’s voice.  I also wanted to create convincing characters in whom readers might invest—little knowing at the time that I would become so attached to two of them that a series would follow.  They feel like friends now—to the point where, rather than creating their story in each successive book, I’ve come to feel like I’m simply recording it as it unfolds.

Q. How many books have you published?

To my astonishment, there are five novels now: By Precept and Example, 2007; Until He Killed Her, 2010; Lockdown, 2012; First Do No Harm, 2015; and the most recent, Missing and Murdered, 2017.  Each of the stories is told against a backdrop of contemporary events taking place at the time of publication.

9 Missing cover

There are also three books of collected stories: On Top of the Grass: Tales of a Snowbird in Florida, 2008; It Matters to Me: Tales of a Young Father, 2010, and The Passing Parade: Tales of a Bemused Bystander, 2017.

All the books can be found, in print or e-book formats, at a number of locations, including http://www.amazon.ca and http://www.barnesandnoble.ca.  They are also available online at http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/precept.

Q. What are you working on now?

I’m currently working on a sixth novel in the Maggie Keiller/Derek Sloan crime series, and I hope to have a fourth collection of tales, Tall and True: Tales of a Peripatetic Blogger, published in 2018.

Q. When you’re not writing, how do you spend your time?

I spend a lot of time reading—more, perhaps, than writing.  And I sing bass with an a capella men’s chorus, Harbourtown Sound, which is both enjoyable and time-consuming.  The chorus website is http://www.harbourtownsound.ca/.

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I also try to stay active in golf, tennis, cycling, swimming, and other physical pursuits.

Q. Who are your favorite authors?

There are several, including John D. MacDonald, James Lee Burke, Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Elmore Leonard, John Sandford, and Randy Wayne White—all of whom write in my preferred genre. I also enjoy authors from different genres—Bill Bryson, Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Winston Churchill, to name a few.

 

On Writing

It was and I said not but.

Huh?  Say again?  That statement doesn’t make sense.

Well, a long-ago English teacher wrote it on our classroom chalkboard one Monday morning, and challenged us to figure out how to make it intelligible.  It remained there all week, ignored by some, I’m sure; but it captivated my attention, and I couldn’t rest until her challenge was met.

This was the teacher who first told me I had the makings of a writer, who encouraged me to write every chance I got, who supported my naïve ambition to write the great Canadian novel.

Beyond the importance of having a good story to tell, she said, and the necessity to populate it with believable characters, there are some essential rules you must follow if you want readers to persevere with you.

once upon a time

Number one:  correct spelling and grammar are crucial.  No reader will long stumble through badly-written prose, full of misspelled words, misplaced commas, and mistakes in punctuation.  Sentences contain subjects and predicates, nouns and verbs, adjectives and adverbs, clauses and phrases; it is the good writer who knows the distinctions among them.

Number two:  an easy, flowing style may sometimes override basic grammar rules, but a discerning reader will know the difference between literary licence and literary incompetence.  Woe betide the author who does not.

Number three:  show, don’t tell.  Describe what’s happening in your story, rather than simply telling the reader.  My teacher provided this example, the opening stanza to a poem by Alfred Noyes, The Highwayman:

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor…

Contrast that with this oft-parodied opening phrase from Paul Clifford, an 1830 novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton:

It was a dark and stormy night…

The first example allows the reader to imagine the conditions, to see them, to hear them, perhaps even to feel them; the second removes that opportunity absolutely.  The first draws readers in, engages them; the second renders them passive receivers of the information.

Number four:  if you worry about what someone might think of you when they read your scribblings, my teacher said, you’ll never write a thing.  Many years later, I was pleased to read what Stephen King, in his book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, had to say about that:

If you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway…

If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it…

just write

The final example is one I devised for myself:  it’s impossible to actually finish a book.  The best I can do is to simply stop writing at some point, and bid goodbye to the people who inhabit the story.  For me, the process is initially about the writing; thereafter—endlessly if I were to allow that—it involves the rewriting.

And on that point, the wonderful American writer, Elmore Leonard, advised:

If it sounds like writing…rewrite it.

For me, the truest pleasure comes from the act of writing, of creating something that never existed before.  Ernest Hemingway, another superb American writer, put it this way:

Writing is something that you can never do as well as it can be done. It is a perpetual challenge and it is more difficult than anything else that I have ever done—so I do it.  And it makes me happy when I do it well.

My English teacher has long since passed away, but I still remember her admonitions, her inspiration, and her love of good writing.  As for that seemingly-nonsensical sentence she wrote on the chalkboard those many years ago, a sprinkling of punctuation made everything clear:

“It was ‘and’,” I said.  “Not ‘but’!”