The Creative Process Perspective #1: Brian McLachlan

FOOD PROCESSOR

I’m not going to tell you the process I use to write a book, but the holistic approach I have to the creative lifestyle. I like to think of the process of writing a book like a recipe, and what I’m sharing here is more than that. It’s how I plan meals, cook, clean, and deal with what’s left. And head’s up, since I’m an illustrator as well as artist, my process involves sketching and doodling, which I hope will be illuminating for you as well.

Prep

Before you make up your own recipes, you have to prepare some that other people have made. That’s when you learn about story structure, giving characters distinct voices, etc.  The stuff that becomes second nature so you know how to preheat the oven to the right temperature, at the right time, because you know how that food is going to cook, whether you add saffron, dill, or fantasy-adventure for flavour.

When you know the basics, you start researching the specifics of your story. I do that with drawing. I look up pictures, or go to places where I can draw things I don’t know how to draw. This is a useful thing to do, even when I don’t have a project in mind. I sketch people at the cafe. Bone up on architecture for half an hour a day until I’ve added flying buttresses to my visual vocabulary.

Do writers do this? When you sit on the subway do you try to capture someone with a phrase “She huddled over her book like gargoyle trying to scare the main character away from danger”? Artists often start with quick gestures, move to 5-10 minute poses, and then have a three hour sitting to see all the details from a model’s pose or still life. I wonder if writing classes do the same, trying to catch those thousand words a picture is worth. Does describing a diner help you write a space ship’s mess hall? Maybe it’s worth a shot?

So that’s the first type of prep drawing I do: sketching. The second kind of prep drawing is doodling. That’s where I draw things I already know how to draw. I’m either refining them to where I like the shapes and lines I’m using, or combining images in new ways. Is it funny to draw a centaur that doesn’t have a human torso, but another horse torso on top? What could is mean? Would it fit in to any of the dishes I’m working on? My sketchbook is full of these weird experiments, which help me find my voice.

I do this with words too. When I’m trying to crack a punchline, or build a plot for one of my shorter comics, I write down a topic, and then brainstorm related words (or images) in different categories (living things, things, places, phrases and actions). Then I look for opposites (as that’s where the humour often lies, like a gorgon with Mongooses for hair). I have a doc file full of lists of things that might help me if I need a list of sports, monsters, or character motivations. These are great when I’m hitting a mental roadblock and there’s a deadline. I’ve written the same characters for Owl Magazine, every month for over a decade. This method gives me the power to come up with a new take on spring break, Halloween, or whatever.

I doodle with words in quiet moments, like when I’m waking up, or walking to pick up my kids from school. When I was lying quietly with my toddlers, trying to get them to settle into a nap. When I’m riding public transit. I doodle with pictures while watching TV without compelling visuals, like Daily Show or Jeopardy! These are the moments to daydream or rework loose ends. That way, when I get back to the computer, or the drawing tablet, I’m ready to go.

The exception to that rule, for me, is at bedtime. I don’t want to think about my life, or my work, because it will keep me up. I won’t get to sleep, and my writing and drawing will be off the next day. When I’m going to sleep I try to visualize things that are far removed from my daily routine. I think about video games I played 20 years ago. I think about walking through a forest I visited once every year in my twenties. Thinking about my work is a recipe for disaster.

Right before bed is actually a great time to read. It helps settle the mind before bed, in a way that screen time doesn’t. It’s good to be reading for fun, or to be low-stress researching for your next possible book (assuming your book isn’t about grizzly unsolved murders or something unsettling). It’s a great time to catch up with my peers’ efforts and know why I want to recommend their books.

Into the Kitchen

Because I’m thinking about my work while I’m doing other things, when I sit down to work, I know where to start, without procrastinating. The new recipe is coming together. It might be revisiting a tough chapter that I had an epiphany about. Or starting off from the last sentence/brush stroke. Or it might be a whole new project I’m getting down on screen, to get it recorded. Like food, I have to keep deadlines in mind. I can be working on baking a cake for the big party on the weekend, but I still need to make dinner tonight. Sure I want to work on my book, but I need to hit my monthly magazine deadline first. You have to keep yourself fed.

I work from home, and am basically a stay-at-home dad and husband. So I have nice breaks throughout the day. I have my moments of flow, but when the writing hits a wall, I can take that time to sweep, or throw on a load of laundry. Taking a few moments away from my work gives my brain a chance to regrapple the problem, while I get something else done. Then I come back to flow. Later, when the laundry goes off, it reminds me it’s been an hour, and I should at least be getting out of the chair. Then right back to where my mind left off.

To the Table

Once a story is done, like a good meal, it’s good to let it digest. So I let it sit for a while, before I think about sharing it with someone. There’s an artist’s trick where you hold a mirror up to your drawing to see with new eyes, to see where your proportions are off. It’s the same way writers read sentences backwards to catch mistakes. Time preforms the same function for me with stories. While that meal is digesting, I’m already working on the next meal though. It might be a light breakfast, like a short story, blog post, series of one-panel gags, etc, or it might be an ambitious 6-course dinner. I think each person has their own metabolism. Some people will do a new webcomic every day. Some will hole up and write an epic novel over years. And then do it again. Some mix it up. I don’t think there’s a writing diet that’s healthy for everyone to follow. Personally, I find I need to mix it up a bit.

In fact I’m usually working on several pieces at the same time. I’m writing my monthly comic. I’m sketching out some submissions for The New Yorker or the Nib. I’m working on my book project for my agent or publisher. I’m tweaking my power point after my last school presentation. Having my fingers in lots of pots helps keep the money coming in, the brain active, my name out there, and allows me to leave a momentary writer’s block to do something else worthwhile.

Speaking of school visits, they’re a great way to try your recipes out on some eager eaters. Tease a story idea, or a drawing and see if people salivate. Find out what books others are reading so you know how to compare your meal when its ready. Get out and meet your potential fans and cheerleaders, while you are giving them the tools to become the next generation of creators. It’s wonderful to pass your knowledge along to the hungry.

Aperitif

When I don’t have a deadline anymore, sometimes I take a day just for myself. Get a massage. Play a video game. It feels a bit like cheating to me, but I can enjoy it when I know there’s nothing super important on my plate anymore.

Sometimes when a story is done, either published, or definitively passed on, I can reuse the scraps for the start of the next meal. Or maybe not the start, but as a flavour, like using the duck fat for some fries.  Some of these ideas need to be like stock, boiled down to what’s the key element that you want to work with. I think about why an idea struck me, and why I want to reuse it, and how I can. What about it is good? What was problematic? Is there a kernel of a story in there? It’s easier to reuse if you’re writing in the same genre, but you might be able to fit a French bread into a Mexican dish.

In our home, I get breakfast and lunch ready for the kids. I make most of our dinners. But some meals I eat are just for me. And the same is true with my writing. Sometimes it’s because I plan it that way. Sometimes it’s because it got burnt and we have to order in pizza. Not all the stories you’ve put your heart into will be shared with others. Their sales may flop. They may never be published. That’s okay. Some endeavours are just for you, and keep you healthy, sustain you. I try not to worry about rejections from agents, publishers, or the public. Famous and fantastic authors have had their books in the bargain bin, or their desk drawer, and so will you. The real end result of cooking is making poop, and you have to be ready for that outcome as well.

BRIAN MCLACHLAN is a cartoonist who writes the “Alex and Charlie” strip for Owl Magazine. He’s also done cartoons for Nickelodeon, The Nib, Dragon, and The New Yorker Magazine. His book Draw Out The Story: 10 Secrets to Creating Your Own Comics, received an ILA Nonfiction Award, a JLG Gold Medal, and was a Silver Birch finalist.

Web: brianmcl.com

Twitter: @mclachlanbrian

Switching Gears Perspective #4: Melanie Florence

Switching Gears from Real Life into Creative Mode

When the deadline loomed for this blog post, I have to admit that I had trouble switching off mom mode and stepping into writer mode. With my kids home from school for the summer, I try to spend as much time with them as possible. Let’s face it…there is going to be a time when they don’t want to hang out with their mom any more. So, leaving a pile of unfolded laundry and a sink full of dishes to open my laptop while my daughter plays on her iPad should have been simple.

It wasn’t.

I tried to write. I did. But Josh wanted lunch. Taylor wanted to watch The Office, so I ended up engrossed in an episode for a while. The puppies needed attention. I wanted a snack. The mail came and begged to be opened. Taylor absolutely NEEDED me to do her dance to The Office theme song with her. The point is, there was always SOMETHING that I could be doing instead of writing this blog post.

Switching on the creativity when you’re in the midst of real life can be next to impossible. How do you recharge the creative batteries when you’re trying to juggle your family, your home life, a day job…all those balls that every writer struggles to keep in the air?

  1. I find that when I’m stuck in a ‘real world rut’ and can’t turn the creativity on, sitting down with a well-written book and losing myself in the kind of writing I’d love to be producing myself, absolutely helps. Some of the books that have helped me recharge lately are The Agony of Bun O’Keefeby Heather Smith, Maudby Melanie Fishbane, Punch Like a Girlby Karen Krossing and Prideby Robin Stevenson. Spending an hour with a good book really inspires me to get back to my own writing.
  2. Meeting up with writer friends. This is a new one for me. I’m an introvert by nature and tend to stick to myself most of the time. But there is nothing that inspires me more than sitting down with some writer friends and tossing around ideas, hashing out plot points, talking about books and how freaking HARD it is to write them! No one gets it like another writer. And no one can make you want to write like other writers. Because your writer friends remind you why you do this to begin with. They challenge you to be better and to take risks with your work. And writers are just fun to be around!
  3. Getting Away from It All. Sometimes you just have to walk away from everything. Okay, maybe not your kids…but that load of laundry you’re in the middle of or the errands you wanted to run or that huge, incredibly long To Do list you’ve been putting off. Sometimes you need to leave it and find a quiet place where the dishes are staring at you, daring you to wash them. Having a place to write that isn’t in the middle of the household chaos is vital. I have a studio in my backyard. My friend Lisa Dalrymple has her Plotting Shed. Other writers have a dedicated office or even a corner of a room where they can sit down and get to work without distractions. Coffee shops work for some people…really anywhere that you can go to forget all the other things you could be doing and FOCUS on your writing would work.

Those are my top three ways to recharge the creativity batteries and get back to work. Sometimes I just have to remind myself that writing is my job. It’s my career. And my career needs to be prioritized near the top of the list.

MELANIE FLORENCE is an award-winning writer of Cree and Scottish heritage based in Toronto. She was close to her grandfather as a child, a relationship that sparked her interest in writing about Aboriginal themes and characters. She is the author of Missing Nimama, which won the 2016 TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award, the 2017 Forest of Reading Golden Oak Award and was a finalist for the 2017 First Nation Communities READ award. Her most recent picture book, Stolen Words, won the Ruth and Sylvia Schwartz Children’s Book Award and was given a starred review by Kirkus, who listed it as one of the best picture books of 2017 to give readers strength. Her other books include Righting Canada’s Wrongs: Residential Schools and the teen novels He Who Dreams, The Missing, One Night, and Rez Runaway.

In her spare time, Melanie watches Doctor Who and Harry Potter with her daughter, discusses the DC vs Marvel Universes with her son and makes her husband sit through scary movies with her. She shares her home with her family, their two dogs (Henry and Daisy), two cats (Shadow and Oreo) and a backyard that seems to constantly attract wildlife. You can find her at https://www.melanieflorence.com or on Twitter @mflowrites

Switching Gears Perspective #3: Eternia

CULTIVATING CREATIVITY

 Spotify has changed my life.

I have discovered so many new and inspiring artists through the popular music-streaming app.

Perhaps more importantly, I can curate a mood. I create playlists with specific mood objectives in mind. Playlists to work out to, to unwind with, to reminisce over the good ‘ol days, to wake me up and get me going in the morning, to crawl into my innermost feelings, to connect with the Creator… the possibilities are endless! Which is why my playlists keep growing.

One of my playlists I’ve named: “Makes Me Wanna Spit.”  If you’re a rapper, as I am, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. This Hip Hop playlist is high velocity lyrical verboseness. The beats are banging, the lyrics are intelligent, the flows are complex, and the BPMs are well over 95. In layman’s terms: if Rocky needed motivational music to run up those steps, this playlist would be it!

I use this playlist sparingly and intentionally. The “Makes Me Wanna Spit” playlist is a tool I use, in a kit of many, to cultivate my creative garden. The seeds are creative ideas planted inside of me, as yet unnamed and unformed.  I use this particular tool when I want to get into the songwriting zone, when I wish to loosen the words stuck below the surface and encourage them to take root and burst through the soil.

My playlist is one of many tactics I’ve developed over time to nurture my creativity.  The methods are tailor-made for me, so they probably wouldn’t work for someone else. However, over time I do think I’ve stumbled across some over-arching principles of cultivating creativity that can apply across the board of creative personality, genre and medium.

photo credit: Silk Kaya

Principle #1: CULTIVATE SPACE

“Be still, and know…” – Psalm 46:10a

There’s something beautiful about an uncluttered mind. It’s where creativity is born and problems are solved. But in order to get to this place of stillness, the mind needs some tidying… or spring-cleaning depending on how long it’s been. We need to clean out our mind’s junk piles – yes that includes the endless to-do lists we ruminate about – in order to create space for other ideas to take root and grow. Let’s call this weeding the garden.

Your space-making process will look different than mine. But usually it involves slowing down, being present, and engaging in a low-stimulation activity that is your version of meditation. This could be working out, running, cycling or hiking. It could be a long soak in a hot tub, or a luxurious afternoon nap, or lying on sand near the ocean, or on the grass in your local urban park, looking up at the trees framing the sky. Whatever method you choose, it should be a de-stimulating activity that allows you to slow down and pause. Because interacting with others is inherently stimulating, it will most likely require alone time.

Many people say they don’t have time for this, while laughing at the thought. That’s a sign that going, doing and checking off “to do” lists is the kryptonite to their super powers.  Most of these folks may be trying to say they don’t know how to do this.  Cultivating space requires discipline and intentionality. It means scheduling it in your calendar and then when a scheduling conflict arises learning to say, “I have a pre-existing commitment.” If you were about to run a marathon, you would schedule time in your calendar to train for it. If you didn’t plan for that time to train in advance, and then got too busy and didn’t train at all, the marathon would be a disaster… or more likely you would drop out of it at the last minute. Cultivating space is a discipline that your creative self requires to flourish. You are “doing” something.  You are tidying your mind. You are weeding the garden in order to make space for beautiful plants to grow.

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photo credit: Silk Kaya

Principle #2: CULTIVATE YOUR CURIOSITY

“Curiosity about life in all of its aspects, I think, is still the secret of great creative people” – Leo Burnett

Once we have weeded our creative garden, it’s time for nutrients, water, and sunlight!  This is the fun part. Imagine you’re an ambassador of a beautiful country, and your job is to show foreigners the cultural beauty of this place. It’s food, music, visual art, dance, fashion, authors, poets, architecture, nature, people… you can’t wait for others to experience all the aspects of your homeland that make it a place you’re proud of.  Well, we are ambassadors for our creative selves! Our ideas and projects don’t develop in a vacuum. The water, sunlight and nutrients they require to grow can be found – in part – through our curiosity. It’s easiest to distill this down to senses: what smells do you love? What tastes? What is music to your ears? What is a feast for your eyes? What makes your body feel free? What brings joy to your heart? And how will you know what the answer is to any of these questions without seeing, tasting, touching, smelling, hearing and experiencing a lot of different things?! The answer holds powerful tools you can use to inspire, develop and grow your own creativity.  Curiosity begets creativity.

I can only explain this phenomenon practically. Have you ever been to a concert that makes your spirit soar? These concerts are the kind that makes me want to make music. Or have you ever had such a stimulating and inspiring conversation with a friend that you leave the conversation with more energy than you had going in? These conversations are the kind that develops my ideas. You ever look at a stunning scenic landscape in front of you, and out of nowhere you’re moved to tears? These are tears that inspire poems, or a painting. These are the kind of sensory experiences I’m encouraging you to cultivate.

There are more subtle versions: reading a compelling book on a topic you know very little about. Playing with children and listening to their conversations with each other. Watching the birds and flowers closely on a walk. Keeping an eye open on public transit for acts of kindness that transpire between strangers. Striking up a conversation with a stranger! The list of new sensory experiences to explore is endless, quite literally.

Cultivating your curiosity requires being present, which is why the first step of cultivating space and slowing down is so foundational. This step also requires stepping outside of your comfort zone and trying new experiences. The beautiful sunset may have less of an effect on you if see it every night from your bedroom window. Any exciting sensory experience can be dulled with repetition; it should feel fresh and brand new, not predictable or dull. If you normally go to the ballet, try going to a local salsa, merengue and bachata night! And, like I mentioned with my “Makes Me Wanna Spit” playlist, it’s important to employ this tactic in moderation. Just like too much water or sun can kill a plant, overdosing on any good thing can reverse its’ effect and dull its’ impact.

Principle #3:  CULTIVATE YOUR SPIRIT

“I’m not afraid of storms, for I’m learning how to sail my ship.” – Louisa May Alcott

Our little fledging plants in our creative garden have now been protected from weeds, and nourished with nutrients, water and sunlight… but what about their roots?  What is a strong spirit? How do we develop it?

I believe our spiritual life is intrinsically and holistically tied to every other aspect of our physical, emotional and mental well being, just as the inner core of the earth is just as much a necessary part of its’ whole as the outer crust, terrain, and ozone layers.

How we pursue and practice our spirituality is very personal, however I believe it’s important to fervently pursue and practice this discipline most of all… especially as creatives! Creativity is not born of thin air. We didn’t plant the seeds in the soil, we can tend to them, but they were already there. Who or what planted them? And to what do we owe this great honour and responsibility of tending to them and watching them come to fruition? We can’t give all the credit to ourselves; it’s not ours to give.

The most impactful creative works transcend time, race, class, language, sexuality and religion. There is something ethereal, mysterious and supernatural about it all.  And – in many cases – the most powerful creative works are born of hardship.  It is through hardship that we cultivate fortitude of spirit that translates in our creative works and ultimately blesses others. From this perspective, we must approach less than ideal circumstances – from the merely uncomfortable to the terribly tragic – from a position of discernment and expectancy. Plants strengthen and learn to bend, not break, when they weather the storms. These trials are the necessary gems required to cultivate our soul, and as a by-product our creative works, if we allow it.

How do we ‘allow’ it? First and foremost, if we don’t have a spiritual practice to begin with, when storms hit we will have no tools to weather it and no anchor. Also, we can allow it by feeling and expressing honestly through the anguish, not suppressing. By being transparent and inviting others to bear the burden with us, even when it takes swallowing pride. Emotional pain is often an indication of an illusion dying, so maybe – through our discomfort – we can ask ourselves what illusion we need to let go of, because it no longer serves us. And just like the plants in a garden never think to ask, “why is it storming? I don’t deserve this”  (because it would be silly to think a plant has a say in weather cycles, and that storms exist to punish/reward plant life)… neither should we.  There is humility and awe imbued in the realization we control far less than we think we do, and that we are not the central character in life’s narrative. Tragedies and trials highlight this reality. Seeking a deeper spiritual awareness and pursuing a spiritual discipline can bring us to the Source of Life, and a peace that passes understanding when we surrender our control to this Source… even our creative control!

Space, stillness, curiosity of the senses, and a firm spiritual foundation: these principles rely on each other.  Cultivating one without the other would be like building a chair with three legs. Likely, I’ve missed other principles; this is by no means an exhaustive list but simply a starting point.  These are principles that have been really effective in cultivating creativity on my journey, and the journeys of others I admire. I look forward to hearing how these principles work for you, or what other principles you employ.   It’s the customization that makes it exciting.  I don’t believe in a one-size-fits-all approach to anything, and certainly not our creativity. Ultimately, based on your own intimate knowledge of self, you get to fill-in-the-blanks and curate your own personalized “Rocky-Running-Up-The-Steps” playlist of victory!

SILK KAYA is a curator of ideas and words. In the past twenty-five years she has done this primarily through the medium of music, as the 2x Juno-Nominated and Polaris Long-listed Hip Hop Artist Eternia.  However, she was performing and writing poems, essays and stories long before she penned her first rap verse.  Entering her fourth decade in this creative life, Silk Kaya is looking forward to challenging herself by pursuing new and unfamiliar pathways in music and media for her ideas and words. You can find her at TheRealEternia.com.

 

photo credit: Silk Kaya

 

Switching Gears Perspective #2: Joyce Grant

photo: Silk Kaya

Writing as Vocation and Avocation: Follow the Shiny Thing

It’s 11 a.m. on a Thursday and I’m polishing a short story I’m submitting to an anthology. I wrote it months ago, but I’ve been making tiny edits to it for days ahead of the deadline—now, of course, it’s down to the wire.

My cell phone rings. A client wants to know when I can edit the documents he just emailed me. I’ve had this client for 15 years, a CEO who has me on retainer to edit his speeches and articles. One of my most consistent paying gigs. I tell him, “Give me half an hour.”

But my short story pulls me back in. A comedic piece about a cat that persuades its owner to commit a murder. I’m trying to make it funnier. Hence, all the tweaks. Comedy is a game of finesse.

My phone buzzes, a text. My son says he “really wants a chinchilla.” He sends me a video: “10 fun things to do with a chinchilla.” I watch the video. It’s adorable. Now I want a chinchilla too, I text him. I copy my husband.

There’s a typo in my story. How many times have I read it over? How is this even possible? “Portuguese” should be “Portugal.” Good lord, what else is wrong with it? Now I have to read the whole thing again.

My computer dings. An email from a reporter who writes articles for my website, TeachingKidsNews.com. Do I want her to cover Stephen Hawking’s death? I’m lucky to have her as a volunteer; if she’s kind enough to do it, I’ll take her up on it, immediately. I write her an email response.

Shit. What time is it? I have just 15 minutes for my client’s documents. Thankfully, they’re all short. While I’m working on them, I somehow manage to ignore the texts my son and husband are now having about baseball (ding! ding! ding!). I keep ignoring them—okay, I read them, but I don’t respond—that’s something, anyway. The clock is ticking on the submission deadline, so I turn back to my murderous cat story, hoping I can make it nothing short of brilliant before 17:00 UK time.

This is a typical morning for me, and lots of writers like me who make a sort-of living, pieced together from many varied writing and editing jobs. The mantra for freelancers is “never say no to a job,” because the well can run dry fast in this business. So you end up with a patchwork of work that’s dizzyingly varied and always due tomorrow.

When you’re sitting at a computer the whole day writing, your mind is often the only thing that gets exercise—jumping from journalism to surreal creative writing, to well, I don’t even know how to describe corporate writing, but it usually pays the best.

At some point, I tell myself that I should block everything out and just focus on my creative writing. Give myself two or three good, solid hours. Like all the writing advisors on Twitter say to do.

But which interruption will I ignore to do that? The client who pays my bills? The volunteer who’s going to take a big article off my hands? My kid? Okay, maybe the chinchilla video—but that was what, two minutes?

Yeah, well, all the interruptions these days are two minutes, aren’t they? But that two minutes is bookended by five minutes on either side, as you figure out where you were and get your head back in the game. Where was that mention of Portugal?

The average income for a children’s author in Canada is $13,000. While there are some who can make it on royalties alone, that number is small. Very small. The rest of us find a job either in writing or as far away from it as possible. I was trained as a journalist and it’s what I know how to do, and what I love.

So, I’m not complaining. But it is challenging to work on a corporate brochure and then switch to a story about a talking cat. Not just challenging—it’s kind of crazy-making, almost. Your writing-mind is in a state of constant whiplash.

Children’s author Eric Walters once told me that, “we only have 2,300 words a day, so we have to spend them carefully.” I get what he means. Even the most prolific writer (and he’s one of the most prolific in Canada) can only write so much in a day. Then, things get sloppy—or sleepy—or both. He says that every word you write online, in emails, blog posts, tweets, shaves away at the number of words you can put into your novel.

While the specific number of words may vary from writer to writer, what he says probably holds true for most of us. There’s only “so much” I can write in a day, no matter what the medium or the subject matter. And I do keep that in mind. If I have a big deadline—for a creative or a corporate project—I need to prioritize and put some things on a backburner.

But somewhere along the way, I had another epiphany that I have found incredibly liberating: “Write what you’re excited about, right now.”

It’s not how we were brought up. You don’t eat dessert first. You do your homework before you go out to play. You put your head down and finish one task before you move on to something else. So, it took me a while to figure this out and to give myself permission to work on the shiny project that catches my eye at any given moment. But once I did, my writing became not only better, but more satisfying.

Let’s say I have a deadline, 1,500 words for a brochure, due Friday. Some days I’ll wake up with an idea for my cat story that makes those 1,500 corporate words seem unconquerable. On those days, the cat comes first. I’ve learned that once the cat has been satisfied, the brochure will become more interesting to me. My writing will be easier and better.

I’ve also come to learn that there are days when the brochure seems more interesting. I’ve thought up a way to make the client’s product sound good, or whatever, and that excitement elevates my corporate work. Even the cat comes second on those days. Lots of journalism stories will do that; when Viola Desmond was put on the $10-bill, it was all I wanted to write about and the cat took a backseat until that article was finished.

Through it all, though, I never lose sight of how fortunate I am to earn my living at writing. To have published books. And to have had all the ancillary experiences—meeting my literary heroes, travelling across Canada on a book tour, learning from so many smart people in the industry, inspiring schoolchildren to write—that come along with it.

Yes, there are days when I think that I’d like to work as a barista in a coffee shop and the only writing I’d do is the creative kind. But then, Viola Desmond would get on the $10-bill and I’d be wishing I could write about that. Also, I make terrible coffee.

Writing and writing and writing and writing can be a lonely business. There are work-arounds for that, of course, but in the end it’s still mostly you and a keyboard. All day, every day. And when the corporate brochure is due, sometimes into the night.

But there’s one thing that has never (knock wood) happened to me. There has never been a single day that I can remember when I haven’t woken up wanting to write something. It might not always be what will earn me the most money, or the project that is the most pressing. But every day there is something I’m excited to put into words, to explore with language, to persuade someone about, to document.

The only difference is that now I follow that shiny thing and I write it, first.
And it seems to be working.

By the way, the cat was framed.

JOYCE GRANT is a freelance journalist and editor and a children’s author, living in Toronto. She has three picture books and two middle-grade novels. Her latest novel, Sliding Home, was published in April 2018 (Lorimer). Joyce is a co-founder of TeachingKidsNews.com, which publishes kid-friendly news. She is currently working on her first novel for adults and is pursuing a Master’s degree in Creative and Critical Writing through the University of Gloucestershire.

Switching Gears Perspective #1: Dave Wright

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photo credit: Silk Kaya

The Man with Two (Dozen) Brains

Brain patterns change when people think in different languages. We also think differently depending upon our environment, our mood, and our companions. There is a big difference between my “rat-race cubicle” brain and my “Florida Keys beach” brain, or my “I need chocolate” and “did he really just say that?” brains. We switch gears all the time. Most of the time it is easy, even subconscious, but sometimes we struggle to connect to the brain pattern we want.

When I create fiction, worlds open up in my mind. Possibilities convolute and coalesce, as they mutate into options. Plots and subplots develop substance, or dissipate entirely. Characters grow into three dimensions. I create and collapse small universes as I jump from idea to idea.

When I edit, I see patterns and forms. I feel the vibrations in my words. I sense the ebb and flow of my narration, the emotion of my dialogue, and the texture of my descriptions. I measure the tension. I trace the character arcs. I can invest two hours on a single sentence, and find elation in a single word.

When I work, I shove that all away. My focus is on math, programming and cold logic. The end goal is almost absolute. Point A must lead to point B (or sometimes a more suitable point C). I am a problem solver. I like it, and I do use my imagination, but it is not the same as writing at all. It can be very hard jumping back into the right type of creative brain patterns.

So how do I get back into mode? Let’s start with the obvious first.

Writing makes it easier to write.

Mind blowing, right? I know, I know, I should have waited for this revelation. But here’s the trick: What do you write if writing is difficult? I like throwing together flash fiction. Sometimes I use a prompt from a blog I follow or HitRecord. Sometimes I fictionalize an event from my childhood or use a movie or TV character. The source does not matter. Neither does the quality of the story. I never spend more than an hour on them. Their existence is only important for one reason. The story has to change my mood. For me, that usually means making me laugh. I always write better when I am in a good mood, even if I plan to kill a major character or start the dust bunny apocalypse.

Help others

Giving releases endorphins. Simply put, we feel better about ourselves when we help others. But it’s more than that. It’s a way of sharing experiences, and building upon the database of human interactions that we regularly pull from. And we learn.

When I started writing, I learned best when editing others. I could finally understand my own mistakes when I saw someone else making them. Now I regularly volunteer to edit, because I feel great when I can help. Whether it’s a chapter, query, or entire novel, it’s like exercising with a friend. You push each other to do a little better, but more importantly there is encouragement to just get on the equipment and start.

Let others help you

There are excellent tools online for becoming a better writer: podcasts, blogs, vlogs, conferences, etc.

I recently enjoyed WriteOnCon’s annual online conference. I follow WritersHelpingWriters, HelpingWritersBecomeAuthors and other links. Personally, I like lessons over insights or interviews when I am trying to find my muse. I also enjoy the information in Mary Kole’s blog and the energy in Kim Chance’s videos.

Art

Of course, creativity is not limited to words. Paintings, sculptures and exhibits are just as likely to take you some place you have never been before. I love the drawings on the page edges of old books, and more recent boom in book sculptures. Recently I saw an exhibition about sleeping at the U of T. It made me think about bedrooms decor, sleeping position, windows, lights, sounds….An entire world continues to exist in and around the person who is no longer conscious of it. That one thought took me in ten different directions.

Music

It may be how it distracts from the silence, or how it sets a mood, but music can really change my approach to writing. I have playlists that are pure encouragement. I have others sorted by time period or tempo. Sometimes it’s about the beat. Sometimes it’s about the triggered memories. I once spent two days listening to the music from an old children’s show (a show of hands for Dragon Tales?).

One of the reasons I like Spotify, is the opportunity to listen to others’ playlists. It’s a different mindset because it’s a different mind. I get to make assumptions about the creator. I can build an entire person around that list. And if they never actually took bagpipe lessons as a child, well maybe they should have.

I use YouTube too, even if I don’t watch the videos as they play. Recently I had PlayingForChange videos as my background music because I like the message as much as the music.

Walking

I like walking, so this might be just me. I once walked from Square One (Mississauga) to Yorkdale (North York) on a whim. When I land in a new city, I often walk until I’m lost then try to find my way back. Okay, maybe that is a little extreme, but after the first two kilometers my mind is usually going faster than my feet. I reason through the day’s news. I grumble through frustrations. I pour over my writing blocks. And one by one, with every step, I work through them.

My standard walk is 5K. Any shorter and I haven’t had enough processing time. Any longer and I start forgetting the good ideas from earlier in the walk. I don’t always return with the best edits, or even feasible ones. But it’s not about solving the problem, it’s about letting the mind wander as far as your feet.

Puns

I have circled back to words here, but this is not about lowbrow humour. It is about why I wrote in the first place. In my first complete story, the hero stabs the villain with an electrified sword, burning a hole through the centre of his chest. I wrote ‘If ever a man was truly heartless, this one was.’ Awful, yes, but it always brings me back to the utter joy of words. It reminds me to be silly and have fun.

At a dinner last year, I joked about the word ‘knackered’. It became a 65,000-word novel about demons trapped in porcelain figurines. You never know when a single word can change your entire outlook.

Last Words

What works for me may not work for you. Switching gears is more than simply changing your mood. I think it comes down to inspiration. That can come from something you have already written, encouragement from a friend, an awesome online resource, or a new opportunity (like writing for this blog). Just don’t let your inspiration become a distraction.

DAVE WRIGHT is a computer consultant, teacher, calculus tutor, SAT creator, and writer. He has published a scattering of articles and short stories, and is working diligently on his novels. He can be reached at ikmarwright@sympatico.ca or @ikmarwright (because there are way too many Davids)

Dry Spells Perspective #5 by Melanie J. Fishbane

Dry Spells: On Replenishing the Self and Radical Self Care

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photo credit: Claudia Osmond

Last summer, I returned from traveling the East Coast with grand plans. I was finally going to finish the draft of a new novel, and hopefully finish another round of revisions one what I affectionally call my “10-year-novel” (even though it is probably more like 7). I had successfully launched the new book and finished an essay that kicked my academic-writing butt and was looking forward to a month of writing before I went back to teaching in the fall.

Spoiler: It didn’t happen.

My mind was muddled. I could not focus. I felt like a failure for not having another publishing contract, wondering if the whole first novel thing was a fluke and I would never be published again. I was grateful, tired, and had received multiple rejections. I had no words. I was done.

I couldn’t seem to get excited about my ideas, either. Even though the topics initially drew me in, I hadn’t been at the beginning of something in a very long time and I was confused, sad, and distracted.

I was not creating. What’s more, I felt guilty for not creating. I had one month before going back to school, I had to make the best of it.

But then a voice of reason emerged. My naturopath, Dr. Shawna Darou had sent out her weekly newsletter with an article on“The Definitive Burnout Checklist” where she discusses three things that keep one exhausted and then how to restore energy. Reading through this list, I knew what was going on. I was burned out.

So, I did something radical—I gave myself permission to not write fiction for a month. I continued to write in my journal, which is something I’ve been doing since I was fourteen and it is one of the ways I cope with, well, life.

Here’s some of what I did:

I slept.

I took long walks and listened to books and podcasts.

I meditated and practiced yin yoga, journal writing my reflections on a daily basis. I bought multi-coloured markers, so I could write in different colours—just for the fun of it!

I saw my therapist.

I reconnected with my love of essential oils.

I read books.

I watched British costume dramas.

I saw friends and went to the movies, you know…fun and play.

I realize not everyone has a month to do nothing and I am grateful for the opportunity of having that month of retreating and regrouping. And I honestly thought that would be enough.

Spoiler: It wasn’t.

In her book, Standing at Water’s Edge: Moving Past Fear, Blocks, and Pitfalls to Discover the Power of Creative Immersion, Anna Paris provides a multi-stage process for creative recovery, exploring the blocks and fears that keeps us from connecting with our creative selves. One of the concepts that I found incredibly helpful was the idea that there comes a time in the process when you might become ‘disengaged.’ Paris asks us to consider that this is a “worthwhile phase of creativity in which we stand back from our work” it is a time where “we can rest, feel enhanced by our productivity and be proud of our work-in-progress.” One of the possible causes of this can be “Running Out of Energy.” Paris suggests that the creative process is emotionally and physically tiring. We may not even recognize it while it is happening because we are so engaged in things, that it is only when we feel depleted—burned out—that we are forced to “disengage to sleep and eat” (165-167).

In retrospect, this is what had happened. I was forced to move from a place I had lived in for 10 years—which meant setting a new creative space. I had finished a project that took me essentially five years to create, and then the last six months or so promoting it. It was the experience of a lifetime that I’m incredibly grateful for—that is an important component to this, too, because I felt guilty for feeling burned out.

But, when I went to the page, it was still scattered and all over the place. I couldn’t focus on the particular projects I had planned.

It was time to change the plan.

The first thing I did was find a way to have a deadline by submitting applications to all of the arts council grants I qualified for. This meant that I had deadlines in both October and (I think) November. The great thing about grants is that I had to write about my manuscript, which helped me learn more about the story I was trying to write and what I was trying to say. In a lot of ways, the questions—however confounding some of them might be—are like really good writing exercises that help you get to the heart of your characters and story. By the end of the fall, I had fifty really good pages of the novel, plus a working schedule and outline on how I was going to approach it. Even if I didn’t get the grant, at least I had an idea of where I was going next.

Now, don’t get the impression I jumped in with two feet and was writing pages every day. I wasn’t. In fact, this was a slow process, where I might have only worked on these pages a few hours every few days. By this time, I was also back teaching and in October the college teachers went on strike, so that meant picketing 20 hours a week. For five weeks.

In fact, the strike threw me into another phase of burn out later on. The mental, emotional and physical toll probably took me a few steps back, and I didn’t truly feel like myself until probably this past May.

I had to shift the way I approached writing and carried a new notebook with me. I gave myself permission to write badly and write whatever came up. I wrote out of order and did interviews between characters, writing pages and pages of dialogue of them telling me things about themselves. By January there was the beginning of three things. I haven’t gone back to them, but I was surprised by how much I filled that little notebook.

In all of this process, I continued to practice radical self-care. If I felt like sleeping in, I slept in. I kept up with yoga (during the strike months I walked four hours or more a day so that was covered) and meditated. I developed a writing course to help other people who were struggling with their inner critic.

In January, I recommitted myself to my meditation practice when my friend, Heather Demetrios (who is developing an excellent program on mindfulness and writing), recommended this one-month free meditation course with a number of teachers online. I signed up and kept up the commitment, helping myself get grounded.

I followed this up in March when Heather offered a one-month Mindfulness for Writers workshop, complete with weekly meditations, a workbook and check-ins. This was transformative, and I highly recommend this for anyone struggling with dry spells and creative blocks. This workshop focused on finding the connection between meditation and the flow in ones writing. It also asked us to dig deep into the stories we told ourselves about our creativity, about ourselves.

It isn’t like the feelings of abandonment; imposters syndrome and invisibility went away. It doesn’t mean I still don’t get discouraged, impatient and angry at myself for not being further along in my career than I think I should be. It also doesn’t mean that I’m perfect everyday (far from it), or that I don’t get distracted by the news, or start the never a good idea of comparison with other writers. It also doesn’t mean that there aren’t shitty writing days, but I am a little nicer to myself about it.

Perhaps, instead of feeling guilty or angry at ourselves for feeling disengaged or blocked or tired with a project, we can recognize that this is part of the process and find the tools we need to help support us when it happens. These are the tools I found and use. What are yours?

MELANIE J. FISHBANEwrites essays about children’s literature, explores creativity and hopes to unlock the secrets of the universe—or at least find the perfect cup of tea. Her YA novel, Maud: A NovelInspired by the Life of L.M. Montgomery was published in 2017. You can follow Melanie on Twitter @MelanieFishbane on Instagram, melanie_fishbane and like her on Facebook.

Dry Spells Perspective #4: Kari Maaren

Some writers take never having a dry spell as a point of pride. “Oh,” they’ll say, smiling faintly with disdain, “I don’t get writer’s block. My imagination is always flowing. Writer’s block is really just unwillingness to work.”

My imagination is always flowing too. Right now, I am happily imagining those writers slowly sinking into a bog. They don’t realise what’s happening until it’s too late. Their cries of despair warm my withered heart.

The thing is…I used to be one of them. I used to be smug. I was sure I would never have a dry spell. The stories were everywhere, right? They were, metaphorically speaking, ripe fruit hanging from the branches of a highly symbolic tree, just waiting to be picked. All I had to do was reach out and take them.

There are many reasons the metaphorical story fruit may vanish from the symbolic branches. Hell, there are many non-reasons too. Inspiration doesn’t need a reason to disappear. But I’d like to focus on one of the fruit scourges many never imagine will be a problem. I’d like to talk a bit about what happens when a life-changing event comes along and, well, changes your life. What you may not realise at the time is that it can also change your writing.

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My mother started exhibiting symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease a few years before her diagnosis in 2011. In movies and TV shows, Alzheimer’s is often portrayed in the early stages, with a character maybe forgetting a few words every once in a while, or in what the writers imagine are the late stages, with a character sitting at a window and staring blankly out of it for hours. The truth of the disease is much more complex and messy. I felt as if my mother were being taken away from me piece by piece. Horribly, as the disease consumed her, it also seemed to consume my memories of her as she had been. I still have a hard time remembering my mum before Alzheimer’s. She turns up in my dreams sometimes, but she’s gone in the morning.

The seven-odd years of my mother’s disease comprised the longest dry spell I had ever suffered. It wasn’t a complete dry spell—I wrote comics and music in that period, and I did work on novels and novellas—but it was a time in which the stories seemed to dry up. I couldn’t finish a novel. The stories had beginnings but no endings. I would go for a walk, and instead of spending the walk dreaming up stories, I would find that my mind was a roaring blank. All the old stories, the ones that had occupied my imagination for years and that I had been sure I would get around to writing one day, seemed suddenly flimsy and juvenile.

This was all happening as what would become my first published novel was slowly working its way through the submission, acceptance, and publication processes. It felt sometimes as if Weave a Circle Round would be the last novel I would ever write: as if the stories were gone forever, just when I desperately needed them. I spent a lot of time in tears. I was losing my mother, and I was losing my creativity.

It’s hard to see the cause of the dry spell when you’re right in the middle of it. It took me until some months after my mother’s death in December of 2016 before I even realised that my grief and my writer’s block were connected. I’m pretty sure it was the realisation itself that started me writing again. I went back to a novel I had failed to finish during my seven-year drought, started from scratch, and wrote it all the way through. As I did so, however, I discovered something else.

Somewhere in those seven years, my writing process had changed.

Before my mum got sick, writing was easy. I would sit down at my computer, the world would disappear, and the words would flow out onto the page. I could write a novel in a month and a half. Now the writing was coming in fits and starts. I kept having to go back and rewrite chapters. One chapter needed to be completely reworked three times before I could move on; I later rewrote it twice more. I got to the end of the novel, but I had to delete the entire climax and try again. The story seemed to be fighting me. The words wouldn’t obey. Where I’d once soared on the wings of poesy, now I was hacking my way through a swamp full of spiky, thorny words that wanted to hurt me back.

I discussed this with another writer on Twitter at one point. She was going through some devastating grief of her own and was struggling to come out of a dry spell. It was, she said, going slowly: she still hadn’t finished anything, but she was inching along, writing two novels at once, something she had never done before in her life.

Maybe, I said, you’re now the kind of person who writes two novels at once.

It was a lightbulb moment for both of us. Maybe we were both different people now. Maybe being a different person meant you also had to be a different writer. And maybe that wasn’t a bad thing.

It’s possible I’ve been struggling so much with my new novel because I’ve been trying to write it as if it’s one of my old novels. I need to grab a clue from my beloved Samuel Taylor Coleridge and approach my writing as someone who has made it all the way through the Ancient Mariner’s story and come out the other side sadder and wiser. The dry spells caused by traumatic life events aren’t fun, but they may just be trying to tell us something.

So if you find yourself in this position, don’t just sit there silently plotting to boil cheerful writers who never ever have writer’s block in oil. Think about why the dry spell is happening. If it’s just a random visitation from the Writing Gods, so be it, but if you’re locked in a futile struggle with the ghost of your old self, pause a bit and try to get to know whoever you are now. The writing process isn’t the same for everyone, and it may not remain the same for you throughout your life. You may eventually find you’re the kind of person who writes two novels at once, or who needs to rewrite huge swathes of the story multiple times, or who approaches characterisation differently, or who needs stricter deadlines, or who has developed an unexpected love affair with enormously long sentences, or who suddenly does more subplots, or who leans towards science fiction instead of fantasy, or who is more interested in picture books than novels, or who has an overpowering urge to produce a musical about bees. Get to know the person you are at the moment, and listen to what she has to say.

You never know: someday, she too may be the kind of writer who soars on the wings of poesy.

Kari Maaren is a writer, cartoonist, musician, and academic who has no spare time. Her first novel, the Andre Norton-nominated Weave a Circle Round, was published by Tor Books in 2017. She has a completed webcomic, West of Bathurst, and an active one, It Never Rains, and she has produced two CDs, Beowulf Pulled My Arm Off and Everybody Hates Elves. She is fond of time travel and titles that begin with “W.”