Category Archives: Writing

The never-ending story

In a recent Sunday school class the kids and I played the “Let’s take turns telling a story” game.

I started them off with a character and a general setting and then we took turns with each person around the circle adding new characters, scenes and twists to the story. Plot development by plot development the story unfolded.

Often the ideas that other people came up with surprised us. We’d think to ourselves, “I didn’t see THAT coming.”

At a particularly challenging point in the story, one girl appeared stumped for ideas. She jokingly said, “The end.” But she quickly brushed that aside. “No, no, no,” she said. She gave the matter more thought and came up with an idea.

Sometimes we tried to think ahead so when our turn came we’d be ready. But then the person ahead of us would send the story off in a whole different unexpected direction. We’d have to adapt and think again.

Usually we’d panic a little when our turn arrived. We’d think, “Oh no. What am I going to say?” Once we set the panic aside, an answer always came.

We talked about all this after. We talked about how:

  • Life, like our story, is full of surprises. How often do we say, “I didn’t see that coming!”
  • It’s good to plan ahead but we need to be ready when things go off in a whole different direction. Be open and ready to respond to whatever comes.
  • Sometimes we want to give up. But carrying on is always more satisfying.
  • Panic paralyzes. Calm produces.
  • Working together is way more fun and interesting than puzzling through it on our own.

From this we can remind ourselves not to be surprised by the weird, unexpected plot developments in our lives and to be ready for anything. We can find the determination to never give up, not to panic, and to find some friends to make it interesting.

Have fun living your story.

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

The biology of story: Pick up, listen, restore

I spent the weekend in Toronto, Canada at the Canadian Writers’ Summit. Hundreds of writers from across the country gathered at the Harbourfront Centre to share ideas, learn from each other and evolve as writers.

Are you surprised I chose to attend a session entitled “The Biology of Story”? 

At the session, Amnon Buchbinder, associate professor of screenwriting at York University, talked about the “interactive documentary” he created to explore the idea of stories as living things.

Buchbinder’s documentary, found at www.biologyofstory.com, outlines three principles.

1. A story is a living thing

“A story will choose to be with you, but you have to choose to pick up the story.” —Nigaan James Sinclair

If you want to drive a writer crazy, ask them, “Where do you get your ideas?” You might hear something like “Out of the clear blue sky.” Perhaps it’s a matter of writers choosing to pick up the stories—those living beings—that come to them.

Watch: Stories are living beings. Period

2. Living is a story thing.

“Listen and you will see your own story will speak to you.” —Jean Pierre Makosso

Do you drift aimlessly from one event to another in your life? Are you listening for what your story—living being that it is—has to tell you?

Watch: Listen and your story will speak to you.

3. Not all narratives are stories.

“A real story is the possibility of restoring the world.” —Deena Metzger

Buchbinder writes: “We live in a world crowded with narratives. Many of them lack key properties of story. This accounts for the lifeless and/or destructive forms that some narratives take.”

Watch: Stories are about wholeness

Buchbinder’s documentary encourages us to pick up the stories that come to us, to listen for what our own stories have to say, and to work with those stories to restore the world.

I just sent you a story. Pick it up, listen, restore. 

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.

dream

Dream

 

 

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:

well-loved-blankie

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:

boy-baby-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:

baby-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.

cursive-writing

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.