Category Archives: Writing

Apple seed, apple pie: Don’t compare yourself with others

Delicious pie. Dig in!

At what point in your life have you compared yourself with others?

What has made you say, “I will never be able to (sing, act, paint, write, run, kick, score, pitch, speak, draw, teach, etc.) like that? I might as well chuck in the towel now, because I’ll never be that good.”

It happens to writers often. We read a book or passage and think, “That is so well written. I could never have created something like that. Maybe I should just set down my pen (or laptop) right now.”

At the CanWrite conference in Toronto, Canada on the weekend, keynote speaker Alissa York addressed this issue. She said that comparing our fledgling writing projects to completed gems is like comparing an apple seed to an apple pie. If we spend our time drooling over someone else’s pie, we ignore our own seeds. Better to spend our time, she suggested, planting our own seeds in good soil, watering them, placing them in the sun, watching over them and nurturing them. Doing so allows our apple seeds to grow into mature trees that bear fruit with which to make our own version of a delicious pie.

And all the while we are helping our seeds to transform, we can also dig in and enjoy those other pies, instead of wasting time drooling over them.

Bon appétit

Tell the truth, write the story

“. . . tell exactly how it happened but write down for yourself the way you think it should have happened. Tell the truth and write the story.” —from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

At my writing circle last week, our group discussed how fiction writers often draw on real life experiences for their work. In some cases, these writers try really hard to transfer the factual events into their fictional stories exactly as they happened. They assume that something that really happened will end up feeling more authentic than some fictionalized flight of fancy.

Memoir writers must stick to the facts, because their readers approach non-fiction books expecting truths. But fiction writers get to have more fun. Their readers come to fiction with a different mindset. When fiction readers pick up a book, they do so with the unspoken understanding: This writer is going to tell me a really good story. They want the story to be the best possible version of a set of circumstances. Reality usually isn’t the best possible version of events so, paradoxically, fiction stories that stick too closely to real events end up feeling oddly . . . out of sync. Fiction works better when a writer takes the seed of a real event and then plucks out the weak spots and makes the story about what should have happened. 

Sometimes it’s helpful to look at life this way. Our past, the events and twists of fate that lead us to where we are today are the facts, and we can tell people exactly what happened. When we look to the future, we can say, “Well, that’s all well and good, but what should have happened is this . . . 

We can aim for the best possible version of events.





A tale of three blankets, or accepting spiritual differences

I’m going to show you three blankets.

When my children were born—first my daughter, then my son—I made them each a blanket. Here is my daughter’s blanket now:


Do you think she used this blanket a lot? Do you think it’s been washed a few times? Yep.

My daughter loved her blankie. It went with her everywhere. She slept holding it and dragged it around when she walked. When she started to kindergarten, she tucked into the bottom of her backpack everyday. When she got older and started going on Brownie and Girl Guide camping trips, she didn’t want the other girls to make fun of her for wanting a blankie, so she tucked it into the bottom of her sleeping bag. She felt it as she slept, but her friends didn’t know it was there.

Eventually she stopped sleeping with it. It didn’t go to school anymore. It stayed at home during camping trips.

One day years later when I was leading children’s time at my church I decided to tell this story to the kids. I wanted to take my daughter’s blanket with me to show everyone. When I asked her where it was, she didn’t have to think for a second. “It’s right beside my bed,” she said. She didn’t use it every day anymore, but she knew exactly where it was.

Now I’m going to show you my son’s blanket:


Do you think he used his blanket much? Nope.

My son barely glanced at his blanket. He never slept with it. He rarely picked it up. It never went to school or on any camping trips.

I had made this blanket for my son, and I was a little hurt that he had no interest in it. I wanted him to love it. Why didn’t he need a blanket in the same way his sister did? Sometimes I even tried to push him to use it. When he couldn’t sleep, I’d tuck it in beside him, sure that it would help. He tossed it on the floor. If he fell and scraped a knee, I wrapped him up in it. He shrugged it off. Eventually I was the one who had to adapt. I had to accept that he was going to have his own kind of relationship with his blanket.

But you know what’s really interesting? When I asked him where it was, he didn’t have to think for a second. “It’s right beside my bed,”  he said. He never needed it, but it was a gift of love from me, so he kept it close.

Now, let me show you a third blanket:


This one I made for my daughter when she was about 7 years old when it became clear that the original one was disintegrating. It’s a new and improved version of the first. I thought she would love it.

She would have nothing to do with it. She wanted the comfort of the original, thank you very much, even if it was battered and torn and no longer serve a real function.

I shared this story with the kids at church because I think my kids’ blankets give us an insight into how we need to accept different approaches to faith.

  • Some people need to hold their faith close, sleep with it and touch it daily.
  • Some people’s needs change over time. When they are younger, they need a strong faith relationship, but when they get older they let it go. Or, some people don’t want faith in their youth, but when they get older or suffer a crisis, they seek it more.
  • Some people know right where it’s kept but don’t need it very often.
  • If we make fun of other people’s needs, they’ll tuck them away, but it won’t change anything.
  • We can’t make people let go of something until they are ready.
  • Just because something is new, doesn’t mean it’s better.
  • Just because something is old, doesn’t make it right for everyone.
  • If something is given with love, people will value it even if they don’t need it every day
  • We give our children a gift if they never have to think for a second to know where to find their faith.
  • One thing is for sure, we can’t force other people to have the kind of relationship with faith that we want them to have. It’s very personal. Even if we hand-make it for them or hand it down generation to generation, people have to forge their own relationships with faith.

Cursive writing: Who needs it anyway?

In the news this week: teachers are no longer required to teach kids cursive writing. Kids still learn out to print; they just don’t learn the weird letter formations looped together. And if they don’t learn how to write bs and rs in the cursive way, they won’t be able to read them either.

Media reports predicted doom and gloom—our children will no longer be able to read handwritten thank you letters from great-aunts. Horrors.

When I heard the news, I thought to myself, “Well, at least my kids know how.” They are 18 and 15 years old, and cursive writing was part of their curriculum. When the topic came up in conversation at dinner though, my son said, “I can’t read cursive.”

“What?” I said, shocked. “I remember watching you practice writing.”

“Yeah, for about two weeks in Grade 3.” He shrugged. “When the teachers write cursive on the board, I can read it better than some, but . . .”

Shocking to think that in 100 years our handwriting will be like hieroglyphics to next generations, or that university courses will teach how to read cursive.

But maybe it’s not as bad as all that. After all, most cursive letters mirror the printed version. Kids decipher the meaning from the letters that match and the context. And handwriting in the last generation has deteriorated anyway as people reject strict form for creativity and individuality. When I look at my aunts’ handwriting, theirs could be used as part of “How to Write Cursive” instruction manuals: perfect letters lined up in perfect rows. Mine? Not so much. My bs and rs look like the printed version, and many letters don’t get looped together at all. I did two writing samples: one of my usual handwriting and one in proper cursive. I had to struggle to get cursive right. I had to look up how to write the z. The bs were particularly hard. I guess I’m part of the crossover generation.


Kids don’t learn to write and read cursive because they don’t need to—societal evolution at play. That’s not the only way they are different. Ask teenagers the time, and they won’t look at a watch. They don’t even have watches. They look at cell phones.

I wonder what will shock my kids in another 30 or 40 years? Maybe keyboards will become obsolete, and my kids will be shocked to discover my grandchildren don’t know how to touch-type. Who knows?

In the meantime, if you need to communicate on paper with a teenager, might be a good idea to print.

Forgive yourself: you are living your first draft

Life is not a dress rehearsal.

Life IS a dress rehearsal. At least I hope so.

How many times have you been lost for words in an emotional moment only to think later, “If only I had said this . . .”?

How many times have you said the absolutely worst thing you could have said only to think later, “If only I hadn’t said that!”?

How many time have you thought, “If I had my life to live over again, I’d do that differently.”?

We all do it. We live on the fly.

How can we be flawless when we can’t rehearse? If only we could edit ourselves, right?

Anne Lamott advises writers to “Write shitty first drafts.” She knows that getting something—anything—down on the page is the key to writing. If writers believe that words are supposed to sprinkle gracefully onto the page in perfect pearly rows, but they can’t do that themselves, they freeze. They tell themselves they can’t write. Their hands hover over the keyboard while the blank page taunts them. Writer’s block sets in.

Writing a shitty first draft gets an idea out there.  A mediocre mess of an idea out there is better than a perfect pearly idea hidden.

After all, no one needs to see it, and once we alchemize an idea from thought to the printed word, we chisel away at it, rearrange it, and polish it to a gleaming shine. We ask our friends for advice and incorporate their ideas. We consult professionals if we need extra help. Even after all that, we still miss some errors. (If you find a typo in this, I don’t want to know.)

We don’t have the privilege of living our lives that way.

Everyone sees our first draft. Every day we meet people and choose words to speak to them. Sometimes we choose appropriate, helpful words. But sometimes we want to rewind our words back into ours mouths like videotape. Every day we choose clothes and do our hair. Sometimes our wardrobe and hair would be at home on the cover of Vogue. But sometimes we meet old boyfriends when we’ve run to the store in our sweats before our shower in the morning. Occasionally  life kneecaps us with unexpected blows. Sometimes we rise above it all with a series of wise, rational choices. But sometimes we use the beer-with-a-whiskey-chaser problem solving method.

How can always do and say the right thing when we can’t rehearse?

Our words and actions don’t sprinkle gracefully onto the page of life in perfect pearly rows. We have to live our delightfully shitty first draft and forgive ourselves for it.

Because one mediocre mess of a life out there is better than a perfect pearly one hidden. 

“I upped my pledge—up yours” and other unfortunate word choices

Humour is one of the side-benefits of grammatical errors.

I am studying to write an editing exam next weekend, so my brain swirls with misplaced modifiers and parallel sentence structures. When I work on the practice exercises that come with the preparation material, a small part of me yearns to leave the material as is, because sometimes it is hilarious.

Like these samples of faulty subordination from church bulletins:

Don’t let worry kill you off—let the Church help.
Eight new choir robes are currently needed due to the addition of several new members and to the deterioration of some older ones.
For those of you who have children and don’t know it, we have a nursery downstairs.

Sometimes there is nothing grammatically wrong with the sentences, but the reader draws unfortunate conclusions due to the ideas presented in each:

Ladies, don’t forget the rummage sale. It’s a chance to get rid of those things not worth keeping around the house. Bring your husbands.
At the evening service tonight, the sermon topic will be “What Is Hell?” Come early and listen to our choir practice.
The sermon this morning: “‘Jesus Walks on the Water.” The sermon tonight: “Searching for Jesus.”
Low Self Esteem Support Group will meet Thursday at 7 p.m.. Please use the back door.
Weight Watchers will meet at 7 p.m. at the First Presbyterian Church. Please use large double door at the side entrance.

Yesterday was Stewardship Sunday at my church. It is a day when the members of the congregation reflect on how they can share their talents to make the world a better place. We didn’t use this slogan though:

The Associate Minister unveiled the church’s new campaign slogan last Sunday: “I Upped My Pledge – Up Yours.”

People like me who write and edit for a living often wake up in a cold sweat in the night when they realize a written piece has a grammatical error or an unfortunate unintended meaning.

If you find any mistakes in my posts, I hope you get a good laugh at least.