Monday, August 30, 2010

Serial Monogamist or Playing the Field?

When it comes to reading books I've always been a serial monogamist. One book at a time and faithful to that book until I hit The End. I rarely ever strayed, never feeling the need to dip my toe into other books while I was still being faithful to the one I started. But lately, things have changed. I don't know whether it's a product of the erratic life I'm leading - running from one thing to another, packing one thing then being led astray by yet another, whatever it is in the last week I've started THREE books: MOCKINGJAY, THE PRINCESS BRIDE, and FORTY WORDS FOR SORROW. This is not normal behaviour for me!

So, because of this, I'm now feeling distinctly unfaithful and uncommitted when I pick up any one of these books to read these days. Granted, I can't be totally blamed for straying from MOCKINGJAY. I'd passed the 200 page mark and my daughters absconded with it while I was in the middle of packing a closet. Okay, I understood. I wasn't paying it the attention it deserved. It is a book deserving of a full hour upon hour of immersion and I just wasn't giving it that devoted, full-time attention. So MOCKINGJAY strayed to partners that would show it the devotion it required. I'm hurt and feeling guilty for my part in the break up but I totally understand. So, to console my bruised ego, I picked up THE PRINCESS BRIDE. After so many years of watching the movie and falling in love with the story I'd yet to actually read it. Well, how better to console oneself after the first book has left you to immediately go to a book that you've wanted to read for years? And what a book it was! Oh, my William Goldman is a master. I could totally forget MOCKINGJAY (for a time) while in the arms of THE PRINCESS BRIDE.

Alas, that too was doomed. While I was downstairs, trying to veg out after a day of exhausted pack and move duties, I was looking through the bookshelf and a mystery I'd been given years ago caught my eye. It was just going to be a casual read. Just a few chapters. It was meaningless time killer. But no. I got hooked.

So I'm now in a twisted three way love triangle with books I don't have time for. How did this happen?? I fear I'm going to have to give them all up for a time so I can make a decision on which one to choose. You see, it's just not in me to play the field. Yup, I'm a definite serial monogamist when it comes to reading.

How about you? One love affair at a time or a few going on all at once? And if it's the latter, how on earth can you keep them all straight?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

One Box at a Time

No, this is not a blog post about some TLC program on how to pack and organize your house. Okay, well, besides the TLC part, it is about packing and organizing your house but it's also about how going through that horrible process can teach you a few things about writing.

Many of you know that I'm in the process of packing up an entire house for our move in September. The last time I moved was over ten years ago and I still have the herniated disc to show for it. But physical impact aside, a move of this size is huge people. Do you have any idea how much stuff a family of five and a hundred pound dog can accumulate in ten years??? And why do we need to keep every single hockey jersey my son has worn in the last five years??? Seriously, it's enough to daunt the most organized of people into paralysis and I'm not the most organized of people by a long shot. While I can plan like a five star general about to invade a country for some things (think vacation planning), going through every item in a two storey house and either packing it for storage, packing it to move to the rental, throwing it away or taking it to the Goodwill is an exhausting, mind-numbing process. Pretty soon you start to make snap judgements without thinking just because you want to get it over with. "Who needs that brass candlestick I paid $200 for seven years ago? I don't like brass anymore. Goodwill." "Do I really need those suit jackets? How many conferences for work do I attend where I wear suits anymore? Goodwill." "The Boy will never miss this Bumblebee Transformer. It's practically broken anyway. Trash."

Pretty soon I'll have emptied out an entire house and the inevitable will happen: I'll redecorate and remember that the candlestick I blithely gave away would have looked perfect on that new table. I'll suddenly have a slew of meetings and won't have a thing to wear to them. My son will sob when he's looking for that favourite transformer and it's gone forever. Sigh. You see what I mean about paralysis. It's enough to make you want to sit in the middle of a half-packed room and cry.

But decisions have to be made and lived with if you are going to move forward with your life. Knowing this tendency of mine to go straight to being overwhelmed before I even start making decisions I have trained myself to think: "One room at a time. One box at a time. One item at a time." I can't tell you how that mantra has saved my sanity over the last few weeks.

So, what does this have to do with writing, you ask?

Well, when you start writing a book it seems like a huge mountainous task that would be impossible to complete. But, just like organizing a move, a little thought and preparation can help you break free of the paralysis. For example, think when you're preparing to write a book

One room at a time means Chapters: What does this one chapter have in it? What places and people are there to be organized?

One box at a time means Characters: Who is your main character? Who are their friends? What are the things that are most important to those characters that must go into that box?

One item at a time means Plot/Goal: What single most important thing does your main character want in this chapter? Keep that one item (your character's core goal) safe and secure and treasured. All the other stuff you can trash or donate (set it aside in another Word document if you don't want to let it go right away) But make sure you keep that one item safe and always know exactly where and what it is.

In this way, using this mantra, you can work through the house that is your book keeping the most important things and not worrying about what you've donated or trashed. One chapter - i.e. one room - at a time. Before you know it you'll have filled an entire house of rooms with neatly packed boxes.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go pack another box.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Strangers on a Train

I'm back from another few days away visiting my mom first then spending a couple of days with my girlfriend - the longest relationship I've had in my life outside of my family. Longer even than my husband and we'll have been married 20 years this year plus dated for several more before that. Jan and I don't see each other very often - if we're lucky once or twice a year. But, as in most friendships if they're good, you don't need frequency so much as a deep empathy and understanding that makes the few get togethers you have seem like no time at all has passed. Simply put, we get each other. We have the same sense of humour and the same types of interests in TV shows, books, movies, and musical theatre. We do differ on some things and we definitely aren't personality clones or anything (she's way more patient and understanding than I am by a long shot. Guess that's why she's my friend :) Still, we complement each other. What more can you ask of a friendship? And how vital it is to have those types of relationships. It is one of the joys in life.

Mostly those kind of relationships take time to develop. But sometimes you can connect instantaneously with the most unexpected people. I was fortunate to have both experiences happen to me this weekend: a chance to reconnect with a life-long friend and a chance encounter with a stranger on a train.

I usually don't end up talking with the person sitting beside me on my infrequent train rides. I'm too busy writing or reading to really pay much attention or put much effort into the superficial chit-chat that typically occurs during these encounters. But yesterday, for some reason, as I was writing I paused and glanced over at my seat mate. He was an older gentleman (in his late eighties as I was to find out) partially blind, using a cane, well-dressed and quiet. I remember thinking in that first quick glance: "I wonder what he's experienced in his life." I'm always especially interested in talking with senior citizens. Inevitably, there is some really fascinating thing that has occurred in their lives. They did live through the most turbulent of times during the twentieth century after all. This man was no exception.

When he saw that I'd stopped writing he smiled and asked if I was writing my memoir. I laughed and said I hadn't had nearly that interesting a life. I did say I was a writer and that started the conversation rolling since he admitted he'd often thought about writing a memoir. He told me things about his life that were the stuff of movies. How he became a doctor at age 40 and lived in the Arctic for several years with his young family while caring for the indigenous people of the area. He saw the last real evidence of how the Arctic people lived for thousands of years before the modern world began to invade. After the Arctic he lived and worked in Saudi Arabia. Before he became a doctor he spent time in Rhodesia and other parts of Africa that were still under British or Portuguese colonial rule. He told me about his adored older brother who was a bomber pilot in WWII and was shot down and killed. He spoke eloquently of how that devastated his parents - and him - to lose the shining star of the family. He told me he was still practicing cardiology though not in clinical practice because of his blindness but he still consulted with other doctors and helped patients with the psychological stress and after effects of having heart surgery. He told me he was going back to work after visiting his children - a four day train ride from British Columbia. I said, "Four days?? I hope you had a sleeper car." "No," he said. "Veterans can travel free on coach class." I looked at him, stunned. "You sat for four days on a train?" He shrugged and replied, "Those things don't bother me."

After the life he lived, I guess not.

He was an amazing, positive, awe-inspiring man. He told me that when he got to Toronto (a trip he made weekly) he was going to take the subway to a hotel I knew was at least an hour's subway and bus ride away. But, like the four day cross-country train ride, it was nothing to this fiercely independent man. I will probably never see this gentleman again but I will never forget him. In two hours he taught me so much about following your dreams, staying passionate about life and the power of the human spirit. Sometimes, a brief encounter has as much impact on you as the relationships that have sustained you for a lifetime. I treasure them both.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Changing Up Your Writing Game Plan

So awhile back I blogged about my writing process and how I was a bit of a hybrid - a plotter for the beginning and ending of the book but a bit of a pantser for the middle. Inevitably that would lead to my getting lost in the murky middle of the book for a time. Believe me when I say I don't have the energy to slog through another murky middle right now (which I am fast approaching in my current wip). There's too much messiness in my personal life for me to want to deal with a messy plot too. I barely have the time to write these days much less use that small bit of time trying to navigate my way out of the confusion that sometimes occurs in that middle. I also fear that if I leave the book for a couple of months while I mull over the middle in my head (my usual process) that I just won't get back to it. Not the way my life is going these days.

So, what to do?

Well, given my changed up personal life I've decided to change my usual writing game plan. I need to be super organized in both areas these days or I will go nuts. I'm currently on Chapter 8 and in another couple of chapters I'll be entering that murky middle. This time I'm going to be outlining each chapter before I write it. I did it with Chapter 7 and when I wrote the thing it flowed. I finished it in an hour. I've got a four hour train ride tonight. I’m going to use part of that time to try and outline the next 3 or 4 chapters and then write them. Now because it's the middle of the plot I know I'm going to have to throw in a few curve balls in there to mess up my heroine's life even more. I have no idea what they'll be. I have no idea if outlining a murky middle is just as frustrating as trying to write through a murky middle. But sometimes changing up your writing game plan can give you a needed fresh perspective on your story - and writing in general. And isn't fresh always way better than murky? Who knows? Maybe I'll be converted to the dark side and become a full-on plotter.

How about you? Have you plotters tried pantsing and vice-versa? More importantly, were you converted or did you stick to your tried and true methods - no matter how frustrating they might be at times for you?

I'll be away from the blog for a few days but I look forward to reading your thoughts when I get back. In the meantime, happy murk-free writing everyone!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

There's No Place Like Home - Now If I Could Just Stay There

We came home late Friday night from two weeks at the cottage. Great weather, no appointments and quiet time that allows me to read are luxuries I'm not always privvy to and I did enjoy my time there - although there were quite a few things needing to be done so cleaning out a basement, installing a water heater (well, hubby did that but I helped haul and lift the thing), painting a shed, installing a screen door (again, mostly hubby, poor thing) weeding the beach and trimming and stacking lots of brush did take up a bit of time. Still, it was away from the hectic pace of my life in the city and the kids do love not having to get up and rush and come home and rush and just, well, RUSH. But even with the nice feeling a break from the day to day craziness of my normal life it felt wonderful to be home. I don't usually experience that post vacation let down some people have. Usually, by the end of two weeks, I'm itching to get back home. I guess, I am at heart, a homebody. Probably why one of the main themes in my writing has to do with that elusive feeling of what home means to you.

For me, home is very much about establishing a physical home base. Somewhere where I can plant roots and make a safe haven for my family. I love the feeling of driving up my street after a time away, seeing my house and walking in my door, dropping the luggage and just sitting on my favourite leather chair in the living room and letting the feel of my house seep into me. I love my own bed and my own comforter and knowing I have everything I need right here without having to worry about whether I remembered if I brought the toothpaste or bandages. I'm in awe of people who can live like nomads and just roam the world, going where the wind takes them. I don't think I could do that. I read Elizabeth Gilbert's sequel to EAT, PRAY, LOVE titled COMMITTED and she wrote about how her partner was happiest when he had a home base, where he could have his coffee maker and a kitchen where he could cook his own food. She didn't mind going from hotel to hotel for six months while the U.S. Immigration service decided whether he'd be allowed into the country to marry her. He, on the other hand, was miserable. I totally identified. I need to know that after a certain time I have a place to come home to. To me, it's almost as good as being on vacation itself.

Unfortunately, this year, as soon as I've come home, I need to leave again. I have to go take care of my mom for a couple of days after her second surgery. Then I'll be going to Stratford next weekend with my girlfriend to see Evita and spend a couple of days catching up with one of my dearest friends which will be a total destressor if it wasn't for the driving to get there (which Jan is doing, bless her). And then when I get back I'll be busy packing up to move the contents of my home to another, temporary home (which isn't really my home)so that we can renovate my beloved house. This is causing me no end of stress. I know I'll settle in to the other house and my normal routine but I will miss living here - even if the house is old and the kitchen is a 1947 reject and the roof is ready to blow off. I still love my street and my neighbours and my old house. Sigh. There really is no place like home.

What about you? Are you homebodies or travellers?