U is for Uneasy Bedfellows (AtoZ Blogging Challenge)

At this very moment, I’m sitting on a Via Rail train speeding along the tracks between Montreal and Toronto (I should maybe have saved ‘V’ for tomorrow… ‘Via’ – but hey why start planning ahead now? The alphabet is almost over!)

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I’m feeling a tad jet-lagged, but am determined not to nap so I can reset my body-clock as soon as possible. Before the day is done I’ll be in London, Ontario, settled into my hotel and trying to get a good night’s sleep before making an appearance at the London, Ontario festivities related to the Forest of Reading, Canada’s largest literary event for kids. Deep Roots (how apropos is that? a book about trees being up for a Forest of Trees award…) is a nominee in the Silver Birch non-fiction category.

 

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Lunch arrived while I was working on the train… looking at presentations and trying to decide how much I should talk about various different books… 

Over the next week or so I’ll do a number of different presentations and mini-workshops and will speak to groups ranging from modest (a class or two at a public library) to very large (the crowd at the big award gala at Harbourfront in Toronto draws hundreds and hundreds of students from all over the province…) I’m an introvert by nature, so you would think that the idea of getting up in front of people I don’t know, perhaps many of them at one time would give me the jitters. But it doesn’t. Anyone who has seen me on stage will know I’m pretty comfortable up there, doing my thing. Hand me a microphone and it’s like some other creature takes over and starts operating my control center as if I were a performing ventriloquist dummy. I do suffer from pre-performance anxiety, but I’ve come to consider those nerves and quivery-ness to be a good omen. If I am shaking in my boots before I start at least I know I’m wide awake and that rush of adrenaline will help keep me sharp when someone hands me a microphone. And, once I’ve started, it’s too late to fix any problems with my presentation – I have no choice but to roll with the punches and have some fun.

No, the “uneasy bedfellows” of the title refers to my status as a reserved sort of person who likes spending inordinate amounts of time alone doing exciting stuff like typing being thrown into the horrifying situation of having to spend time in small groups chatting with people I hardly know at all. This situation happens a lot at events like this. Tonight, for example, I will meet up with several other authors in an informal setting. We’re all presenting tomorrow in London and because a number of us are coming from afar, someone on the other end of the introvert scale from where I live has thoughtfully organized a get-together. Eek! Small talk! Ack! Casual chit-chat… Run away! Run away!

This is when an internal battle begins to rage. Part of me says that it’s perfectly reasonable for me (jetlagged and all) to just retire to my hotel room, have a shower, and go to bed early. After all, I need to be sharp for whatever tomorrow may bring. Such a grown-up tactic is just being professional. Another part of me guffaws and says, ‘But this is your tribe! Here’s your chance to chat over a glass of wine with some of the writers you admire most in this whole entire country!!!” Writers from eastern and western Canada don’t get together that often, and when we do, guess what? It’s always FUN! This is when another voice chimes in to this inner conversation and says, “Remember when you met so-and-so and you laughed so hard you spilled your orange juice all over the table? Remember when you met whosamacallit and you found your writing soulmate? Remember that time when you stayed up so late talking to whatsamawhosit you saw the sun come up and thought you wouldn’t be able to stay awake through your presentation the next day?”

Have I ever actually had a miserable time once I got over myself and left my hotel room and joined the gang? No. Au contraire, as they say in Paris (and Montreal). Some of the BEST times I’ve ever had in my life were at exactly this type of small scale gathering. The dread of the encounter is far worse than anything that ever actually happens. So what if I recognize a face but can’t quite place the name? That’s what these meet-ups are for! People introduce themselves.  Do I feel offended when someone can’t remember my name? Of course not. What if I can’t remember who, exactly, wrote what? Or which of the awards they are up for? Um, that’s what the question mark was invented for. This is how conversations get started.

 

Spending time chatting with other authors is a great chance to get to know each other. Sometimes, really great friendships form, friendships that last for years and survive long periods between meetings. (Didn’t I just spend a fabulous flying visit with the inimitable Monique Polak in Montreal??? Didn’t we meet when she was speaking at a library? Remember that, oh, voice of doom?) When the evening is well under way and the conversations are animated and we are all laughing, and yacking and having a great time I can’t actually imagine a better place to be. I know all that is quite likely to be the case over the next week as well, but honestly, it’s like that knowledge is trapped in some secret location somewhere that is not accessible to me as my train barrels along taking me to what feels more like an anticipated meeting with a group of hostile monsters.

This, of course, is ridiculous. Children’s authors are not hostile monsters. They will not laugh at me when I walk into the room. They will not pluck the olives from their drinks and throw them at me while pulling faces and pointing. They will not all turn their backs to face the wall rather than speak to me. They will not see me arrive, check the time on their phones and, as one, push back their chairs and say, “Well, that was nice. Here Nikki – have this table because we are all leaving now.” This may all sound very strange to those of you who belong to the extrovert camp, but this is the odd world where I live between social interactions which (though you may find this hard to believe, given this post) are generally reasonably normal. Fun, even. Sigh. It’s all a bit baffling, even to me and I’m the one who has been living like this for the past half century or so.

So, there you go. True Confessions Thursday, if that’s even a thing. What about you? Where do you fall on the introvert-extrovert scale? Get togethers with peers – are they your worst nightmare or what you look forward to most?

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T is for Taking Time (To write, in Paris) AtoZ Blogging Challenge

I should know better. You can’t live a whole week and not make an effort to write some stuff down. Like, details. In the moment when life is actually happening. The problem is, the mind is designed to forget. And, rightly so. I mean, there’s just way too much information coming in to possibly absorb and remember it all. If you don’t write it down while it’s going on, poof. All but the vaguest of impressions disappear.

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Step 1. Take the time to watch. Stare out the window. Pay attention. Spy relentlessly.

Being out of my element makes it even worse. I’m making a real effort to see at least one new thing each day I am in Paris. Most days, I wind up discovering a gazillion things.  A whole week without writing stuff down means the end of week summary sounds like a long shopping list. And we all know how interesting (not) shopping lists are to read.

 

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Parc André Citröen

 

Case in point, I had a really busy week last week and didn’t do much journalling. By the time I found a few minutes to write down what I’d been up to it was late one evening and I was too tired to write much so I did this:

  • rode carousel
  • bought fancy cake
  • photos of graffiti
  • Montmartre
  • drug dealer phone
  • remote presentation
  • edits on Love and Belonging
  • photos of Joan d’Arc statue (dancing umbrellas)
  • French lessons (the Camino mag)
  • in search of the best baguette
  • Michael Rosen at Shakespeare and Co.
  • cool paperies – in search of notebooks
  • meet-up Shut up and Write
  • Metro stop a day project
  • outside my bedroom window – life in the plaza
  • working out under the bridge (oh my aching abs)

 

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Detail from the Palais Royal Metro station exit… Taking this photo was part of my plan to pop out at one new metro station each day that I’m here in Paris and then record my findings. 

 

Any one of these bullet points could have been expanded into some sort of blog entry or article or at least a decent journal entry but no, instead I fell asleep. And then, the next day arrived and I was up and at ’em and busy living again and adding more stuff to the list.

 

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Had a great time doing research for a possible article, “Best Playgrounds in Paris” but haven’t actually done any writing on the subject… yet. 

 

 

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Step Two: Take the time to write. I’m the one hugging the bagel during a writing session at the local shopping mall. While our apartment was being fitted out with wi-fi, I wound up heading over there to work as they have plugs, free wi-fi and don’t mind if you bring your own baguette. In case you are curious, the mall is called Beaugrenelle and it’s about two blocks from our apartment.

My goal for the days ahead is to slow down and do what I know I should be doing: building time to write about what I’m doing into the schedule every day. Today’s objective is to visit the Museum of the Cinémathèque and then, afterward, to find a café where I can sit down and write a bit about that experience. There. I’ve said it publicly. Now I HAVE to do it.

 

S is for Shut Up and Write (in Paris)

 

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Glen – one of the writers at the Shut Up and Write Meet-up in Paris. His humourous book about all things academia is coming out later this year. Check out Glen’s blog.

 

I was trolling the internet in search of good cafés in which to write while in Paris (you would think there would be a lot of them around, but it seems that not all cafés appreciate broke writers hanging out for hours, sipping their café au laits veeeeeery slowly) when I stumbled across a MeetUp called ‘Shut Up and Write’ which takes place every Saturday at the Anticafé.

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The cozy seating area downstairs… photo brazenly stolen from the Anticafé website, but I’m thinking they won’t mind because I’m saying nice things about them…

I tossed my laptop in my backpack and, determined to battle my way through the latest round of revisions on the new Footprints title, I plotted my Metro route and set off. Three trains and a short walk later (I think I made the trip a bit harder than it needed to be), there I was, pulling up a chair. A dozen other writers had already gathered and were chatting away.

The Anticafé provides workspace (we were at tables and chairs rather than couch and coffee table shown in the photo), lots of plugs, and good wi-fi (pronounced ‘wiffy’). For the hourly rate of 5 Euros you also get as much coffee or tea as you can drink as well as assorted snacks. Attending as part of the writing group I received a discount – anyone who signs up for a loyalty card also gets a break on the hourly rate. You can also sign up for a monthly plan which might work out to be a great deal if you spent many hours and ate a lot while beavering away at your new novel.

The writing group plan was to write for about 40 minutes and then take a short break for snacking and chatting before doing another 40-minute writing session. Between 10 am and 1 pm, that’s pretty much how it went. Regulars confessed that things don’t always go quite according to plan – some days it’s hard to tear fingers from keys, apparently. Other days, the chatting overwhelms the working and things devolve into an orgy of good conversation.

Co-working spaces like this make a lot of sense for those of us who are part of the digital nomad community. (For more about digital nomads, check out rethink9to5 or the Digital Nomads Facebook page). When you’re traveling (and, face it, even when you are closer to home), writing can be a lonely endeavor. It’s marvelous to be able to walk into a coffee shop half way around the world (or halfway around the block) and find members of your tribe scribbling away in notebooks and tapping away at their keyboards.

I must say I had a great time, which is a bit unusual for someone who really doesn’t like the idea of walking into a room full of people I don’t know. That said, such a venue is the perfect place to try out this conversation starter: What are you working on?  Thanks to the organizers for putting the word out and helping us introverted writer types to connect! I’ll be baaaaaaack! (Though… I will be keeping a close eye on my belongings… particularly my camera… And, before anyone panics and thinks my camera was the victim of a snatching, it was an honest mistake… I mean, if I saw a cute camera lying about on a table, I might just pick it up and start taking photos. Stranger things have happened… right, André?)

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This post is part of the AtoZ Blogging Challenge. Visit the Facebook page and follow the links to participating blogs all over the world.

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Enjoy the blog? Consider becoming a patron to support the creation of these blog posts, photo essays, and short videos. In return, you’ll have my undying appreciation, but you’ll also get access to Patron-only content, advance peeks at works in progress, and more – all for as little as a buck a month! It’s easy – head on over to Patreon to have a look at how it all works.

 

 

R is for Reading – in Paris

 

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Mecca for readers and writers alike – Shakespeare and Company in Paris

 

It always surprises me when students say they don’t like to read in a genre similar to their current work in progress. I’m the opposite. Writing a memoir about walking the Camino? Step one is to read every memoir I can get my hands on written by other people who have walked the Camino. Want to write a fantasy novel for kids? Now there’s an excellent excuse to immediately run out and procure an armload of fantasy novels for kids.

I don’t worry about accidentally stealing ideas – I have plenty of my own. I don’t worry about imitating someone else’s style – I try to find the widest possible range of voices and approaches when I’m reading. That pretty much eliminates any worry that I’ll find myself adopting another author’s writing style. Besides, by now I sure hope I have a style or voice I can call my own!

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When I read books and articles by other people I analyze them to death. It’s the only way I can think of to see what works and what doesn’t. Do I find myself completely engaged in one account of a Camino trip and utterly bored by another? Why? What makes some writing so compelling and other writing so meh? I enjoy it when an author’s personality shines through, especially if the writer has a sense of humour. I like lots of anecdotes mixed in with my doses of hard facts. But, I do like those facts to be there as well. Does the author use sidebars to pull out the factual bits or roll everything into some kind of overarching narrative? As I read, I hold my observations up against what I’m trying in my own writing. Then, when I’m writing, I try different techniques, modifying to suit my own story and what I’m trying to accomplish. In recent years, I’ve found I’ve started reading almost exclusively non-fiction, but the range of approaches to non-fiction is almost as broad as the range of subjects covered. On one hand, that’s very liberating – there is no ‘right’ way to come at a project. On the other hand, all those choices mean it can be pretty overwhelming to figure out what the best approach might be.

What about you? When you start a new writing project do you shy away from reading related material? Or do you seek it out and immerse yourself in the works of others who have explored similar paths before?

Q is for Query Letters

It’s been a while since I wrote a good old-fashioned query letter. But here I am in Paris and it seems a bit silly not to take advantage of my time here. I’ve been wanting to write a few more travel articles (it’s been a while since I last published any travel pieces) and what better place to find some inspiration than right here?

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I love graffiti and have seen quite a selection since our arrival. Plenty of people have been having fun with the zillions of political posters that are plastered everywhere… I like travel articles with unusual visual elements (so, for example, no Eiffel Tower shots, my last post notwithstanding…) so perhaps an article featuring some of the finest graffiti in Paris might be cool.

I’ve also seen some beautiful crumbling things…

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Maybe I should shoot a photo essay about Paris and her quiet corners, the places where her beauty is fading (aging gracefully, depending on one’s perspective).

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I’ve been doing a lot of people-watching from our apartment window… that’s a long and venerable tradition here. Perhaps a personal essay about why watching people is so utterly fascinating? I’ve started a list of ideas for articles. Query letters are on my to-do list for later this week. Stay tuned. I can only hope that the acceptance-to-rejection-ratio is a bit better than when I first began as a freelancer all those decades ago.

I’ve started a list of ideas for articles. Query letters are on my to-do list for later this week. Stay tuned. I can only hope that the acceptance-to-rejection-ratio is a bit better than when I first began as a freelancer all those decades ago. Earlier this year when I was going through all my papers as I prepared for my move to the mountains, I came across stacks of carefully saved query letters for publications all over the world. I was enthusiastic and optimistic as a youngster, that’s for sure! Right alongside my lists of potential markets for a gazillion stories, articles, and poems were stacks of rejection letters. Some were generic photocopied ‘thanks, but no thanks’ replies. Others had personal notes scribbled alongside the generic message (those were very encouraging, even when the editors were also saying, ‘thanks, but no thanks.’) In the mix were the occasional acceptance letters or requests for subjects slightly different to those I had suggested. Occasionally, there were even cheque stubs! Oh, how well I remember the sheer delight I felt when I first started receiving payment for my efforts! There are also clippings of early articles, but those are outnumbered perhaps 20:1 by the rejections. The odds were even worse for poetry but a bit better when it came to articles. Travel writing was somewhere in the middle.

 

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The staircase up to our flat in Paris. No elevator in this old building.

 

Things have changed, of course. One doesn’t need SASEs any more (many submissions are done online) and, of course, the creation of images has changed dramatically since the days when film (and film processing) was expensive and one thought long and hard about every shot one took. And then, of course, you had no idea whether the exposure was decent or the image sharp or, heaven forbid, something happened in the film processing and your entire set of precious photos were ruined. Not that things can’t go wrong in the digital age, but there are ways to mitigate loss through compulsively backing stuff up. And, of course, you can have a peek and immediately see whether or not you have captured something useable, which is all the more likely because for better or for worse, there really isn’t an upper limit on how many photos you can take.

 

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The railing outside my bedroom window.

 

The sun is coming out after a rainy morning here in Paris, so off I go to see what stories I might unearth!

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P is for Pleading Paris

Well, sometimes things don’t go exactly as planned. Hence my jump from E to P in the AtoZ Blogging Challenge. When I started this challenge back at the beginning of April I didn’t expect to be hopping on a plane to Paris, but that’s what happened. And, sometimes, unexpected travel completely throws a wrench in one’s blogging plans.

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It’s hard not to enjoy the Eiffel Tower, especially on a glorious sunny day. 

Sometimes, an opportunity presents itself and you book a ticket and go. It looks like we will be here for a little longer, so I’m going to shift gears and think about what it means to be a writer on the go and, in particular, a writer in Paris. I may or may go back and fill in F to O at some point, I may not. That sort of depends on what experiences still await me here in the City of Love, City of Light. (hmm… maybe those monikers could be part of an ‘L’ entry… )

For the moment, that’s it. We are here. In Paris. In the springtime. How cool is that?

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Enjoy the blog? Consider becoming a patron to support the creation of these blog posts, photo essays, and short videos. In return, you’ll have my undying appreciation, but you’ll also get access to Patron-only content, advance peeks at works in progress, and more – all for as little as a buck a month! It’s easy – head on over to Patreon to have a look at how it all works.

 

 

Enemy of Creativity (AtoZChallenge)

“And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”
Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia PlathO

Oh, Sylvia – thanks for saying it. Yes, self-confidence is a key ingredient in the creativity pie.

What does it mean to be creative, anyway? I’ve always thought of it as the ability to make something from nothing – to allow an idea or a thought to bubble up from that mysterious well from whence such bubbles rise and then… to do something with that thought or impulse.

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We all have ideas. Dreams. Thoughts. So what is the difference between someone who then goes on to make something with that raw material and someone who doesn’t? I agree with Sylvia Plath that self-confidence, or lack thereof, plays a big part in the expression of creative projects.

Self-doubt is crippling. The minute you begin to question whether the idea is good enough, whether you are going to be able to find a way to express that idea, whether it is worth playing with, exploring, developing – it’s pretty much game over that that point. The willingness to explore, to set off along hopeless paths, to experiment, to play, to fail – all that is part of the messy creative process. It takes a certain boldness to be willing to be wrong and being creative is a lot about being wrong. Perhaps wrong isn’t quite the write word. But it’s rare when exactly the right expression of an idea emerges fully formed and perfect. In my case, never. As a child, when I was making something or drawing or writing a story it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t come up with something if I just kept going. I created with little regard for how it would all turn out. Like most kids tend to do, I picked up a pencil or a pair scissors and started experimenting.

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Somewhere along the line, we learn that there are right ways and wrong ways to create – that one person’s drawing is better than another’s, that a story doesn’t mean the same thing to a reader that one thought it would. And when that door to failure opens, that’s when the doubts creep in. It’s easy to get so intimidated that we just stop trying.

I think that’s what happened to me with visual expression. As a kid I loved to draw, paint, make collages. I don’t know exactly when it happened, but at some point I concluded I could not draw. So, I stopped. For some equally mysterious reason, I decided I could write stories. Looking back, I don’t think I had a particular talent in one direction rather than the other. But what I did have is a complete lack of self-confidence on the visual arts front and a sense of confidence on the writing front. So, I wrote a lot of stories when I was a kid and never really stopped. When I read those stories now they are not particularly good. I’ve read far better stuff rich with real raw talent in some of the student submissions I am lucky enough to get to read now when I teach writing workshops. What I did have in spades was enthusiasm and the belief that my ideas were worth writing down.

I have no idea how many words I must have written before, finally, things started to improve and the creative impulse and dogged persistence merged to produce something worthy of publication. Lots (during my recent move I found hundreds of pages of dreadful drivel, some of which goes back to my earliest childhood scratchings).

These days, I still struggle to shape my sometimes wild ideas into a form that is readable. That process has not become  easier despite the number years I’ve been at it and the number of things I’ve wound up publishing. What has become easier is the belief that if I work at it long enough, rewrite often enough, keep at the shaping and molding and massaging of the article/story/book, eventually it will come together. That confidence in the process, the willingness to be patient is as important as any initial juicy idea or creative urge.

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Not that long ago I decided to see if this theory about having confidence and forging forward could also be applied to drawing. It’s been an interesting process, hushing the inner child who thought she couldn’t draw (since this is a series of posts about writing I won’t go into a lot of details here…). First, it is possible for someone as ancient as I am to have a change of heart about something I thought was a fact (my inability to draw). Turns out, patience and practice result in some surprisingly not dreadful outcomes. I’ve tried my hand at a few different exercises – from drawing cartoon faces to a few simple sketches to go along with my sailing course notes. No, I haven’t discovered my inner Michelangelo, but I am no longer scoffing at the idea of picking up a pencil or paintbrush and working to find ways to express creative ideas visually. It’s actually been kind of fun at least as much as it has been messy and frustrating.

What about you? How important is confidence in your creative process?

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This post is part of the A to Z Blogging Challenge in which bloggers from all over the world write a blog post every day in April. There are a LOT of other bloggers taking part. Visit the A to Z Challenge blog to see who is posting what each day.

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Enjoy the blog? Consider becoming a patron to support the creation of these blog posts, photo essays, and short videos. In return, you’ll have my undying appreciation, but you’ll also get access to Patron-only content, advance peeks at works in progress, and more – all for as little as a buck a month! It’s easy – head on over to Patreon to have a look at how it all works.