Writing Secrets From The Bachelor (yes, THAT Bachelor 🌹)

Those of you who have taken my writing workshop know that I spend about the same amount of time talking about acclaimed, classic Canadian literature as I do gabbing about everyone's favourite hate-watch reality TV franchise, The Bachelor. Yes, you know the one- with the roses and limos and bikinis-on-helicopters. I can't explain my obsession. And I'm not proud of it- I work as a screenwriter, so I'm well aware that my tv viewing time should be spent on watching classics like The Godfather or, I don't know, Citizen Kane or something (actually I probably watched that movie like 12 times during my undergrad and to this day it is the only film I have ever fallen asleep watching, and yes I know that's like film blasphemy).

I do try to separate "true film" viewing time from guilty-pleasure TV time, but more and more that latter category gets exclusively filled by all the various spin-off/social-experiments of the Bachelor: Bachelorette, Bachelor Pad, Bachelor in Paradise, and, now, in case you wondered what it was like to watch really attractive people who have never done winter sports in their life try to compete in speed skating, Bachelor Winter Games.

When I realized last year how much time in my life was actually spoken for if I committed to watching an entire season of the Bachelor/Bachelorette, I started confining myself to only watching from the hometown dates onwards (once the token, producer-planted "crazy" person gets sent home), BUT STILL... I can't quite figure out what draws me to the show other than- there's no drama like reality TV drama. They can get away with using the most butt-clenching cliches, the kind my editor would immediately blacklist me for writing, as legitimate story-lines (I mean, honestly- they fall in love while making out half-naked in the sand on a deserted island beach after drinking champagne and eating chocolate covered strawberries? How many cliches is too many cliches in one scene?? The Bachelor answer: NO SUCH THING AS TOO MANY CLICHES). To use an old movie quote cliche myself- I'm not even mad, I'm impressed. 

SO- when a friend invited me this week to attend Calgary's stop on the book tour for Bachelor Nation, a tell-all, behind-the-scenes exploration of the goliath franchise written by LA-based tv journalist, Amy Kaufman (who was in attendance to answer all our nosy questions!), I accepted the rose, I mean offer.

I had read about this book in the fall before it came out; it was making some literary headlines because ABC, the network that owns The Bachelor universe, was trying their darndest to stop Kaufman from publishing all their secrets.

What drew me to this book, however, was not just the promise of elicit backstage gossip (what ACTUALLY happens in the fantasy suite??), but Kaufman's mindful balance between gossip and social commentary. Because, you see, Kaufman, an avid fan all the way back to the show's inception in 2001 (yep- you heard me- in 3 years, the show will hit its 20th anniversary of showcasing what happens when you put 20 women on lockdown in a mansion with no phones/tv/books/magazines and plenty of alcohol to compete for one mediocre man's "heart" on air), is not only a mega-fan, but also, like me, is mega-conflicted over WHY.

Like me, Kaufman would call herself a feminist; she famously published articles outing not only James Franco but also Brett Ratner for years of covered-up sexual harassment in the film industry. Like me, Kaufman occasionally gets kind of sick, if not downright angry, when she thinks too hard about The Bachelor's insistence at showcasing perfect, tall, model-size, long-haired, tanned, almost exlucisively white women as supposedly the only ones "worthy" of this "perfect" man's attention. Like me, Kaufman harshly judges herself for actually enjoying watching women act like hysterical femme-bots from some medieval century, a tasteless regression back to the days when women literally had no agency or identity apart from their husbands. Like me, despite all of the above, Kaufman still can't seem to look away from the train wreck.

I stayed up wayyyy too late last night blasting through Kaufman's book, relishing in the juicy behind-the-scenes details (did you know the women have to buy all 14 rose-ceremony gowns THEMSELVES?? Many women max out credit cards before going on the show buying outfits, getting hair extensions, lash extensions, tanning, personal trainers, makeup lessons, etc- with the hopes that even if they don't get the guy, they'll at least get enough Instagram followers to quit their day jobs after the show and make $5000 every time they post about a teeth-whitening product... but I digress...). What makes the Bachelor Nation book so great, however, is that, along with all the juicy details, Kaufman, who I'll remind you is an award-winning film writer and journalist, weaves in her own narrative of everything I mentioned above, namely, sharp, insightful social commentary on the whys and WHY THOs of our trans-national obsession with the phenomenon that is The Bachelor. 

WEAVES is the key word here, and this is actually what I want to focus on in this post (though I could legit fill it solely with Bachelor trivia... another time.. another time...). I've been working with several one-on-one coaching clients lately and many of them are writing some form of creative non-fiction (or CNF)- that strange genre that combines writing about real-life events/facts in a really engaging and imagistic manner. It's a tricky thing to master, but master it you must if you want to write in the realm of blogging, memoir, autobiography, or essay. So without bogging down too far into CNF structure, since the nuances of how you use it really depend on your own personal writing style, Bachelor Nation the book is actually a great example of one form of CNF structure, weaving, otherwise known as "braiding". 

"Braiding" is a technique used in CNF that allows you, the writer, to not only tell a good story, but get some technical facts, background history, political/social commentary, etc, in there as well.

You begin with the fun, salacious story that draws your reader in. In the case of Bachelor Nation, that would obviously be the behind-the-scenes exposé on the show. This is the first strand of your braid, and it's the one you'll use to keep your reader's attention. It's the "story", the part where you'll drop in and tell us EXACTLY how it felt/looked/sounded/smelt like to be in the moment. 

Now you can choose to stay here if you want. Strand 1 is fun- it's the "creative" part of creative non-fiction- you use typical fiction techniques like description, dialogue, character, gesture, etc, to really set the scene for your reader. However, I would argue that what separates the men from the boys (or the women who get to visit the Bachelor's family versus the other riff raff), is including a second strand. 

Strand 2 of your braid is where you begin to weave in another level. In Bachelor Nation, this is Kaufman's own social commentary on the show, her political musings on how women are depicted, the history of romance reality television, and the show's issues with race. This is where the technical facts come into play, whether that be actual statistics and dates or simply your own jargon commenting on the issue from "outside of the Matrix", so to speak.

Sometimes we can be tempted to only write Strand 2 because it seems the most "helpful" or "serious", especially if our goal in the piece is to teach our readers something or try to change their mind. However, I would caution against only writing Strand 2, because not only is it kind of boring, you often end up "preaching to the choir", ie. people who already think like you. And none of us like to be preached at. We just want to hang out with our friend and have a glass of wine and maybe learn a thing or two. Strand 1, when woven with Strand 2, helps to allow that friendly conversation to go a bit deeper. 

Occasionally, in really masterful CNF writing, you'll see a Strand 3. This is often a wild card, and can include literally anything extra that you want to bring to the theme as a whole. In Bachelor Nation, Kaufman weaves her Strand 1 (Bachelor gossip) and Strand 2 (political/social commentary) with Strand 3, which I will call Famous People Tell Us Why They Watch The Bachelor And How They Feel About It. In between her other chapters, Kaufman includes these little snippets from celebrities like Amy Schumer and Heidi and Spencer Pratt, and because it includes elements of both gossip and social commentary, it's the perfect third strand to help weave and hold Strand 1 and 2 together. 

When I was little, I remember when my dad would braid my hair. Bless his soul, he had three daughters, so he set out to learn how to braid, darn-it!, but even to this day I can picture the awkward angle of his wrists, and how the pieces fell loosely in between his fingers as he tried to keep them all sorted. When mom braided, that sucker wasn't going anywhere. But when dad braided, I would get these soft pieces falling out, which would probably be lovely now but at the time was super inconvenient when I was trying to play a no-nonsense round of grounders on the playground. Regardless of how you choose to braid- how many strands, how tight they are, how well they keep or rebel against a pattern- using the structure will largely help develop your particular brand of writing (ie. your voice!) and help your voice stand out from the crowd

I would encourage you, then, before you just leap straight in to the straight, solo ponytail of telling that crazy story or going on that political rant- consider elevating your content by braiding that story or rant with another, complementary, strand. If Amy Kaufman can do it even when threatened with civil lawsuits by a major broadcasting corporation surviving almost entirely on selling the "fantasy" of marrying a stranger, so can you. 

In the mean time... who's tuning in to Bekah's season????? And will Nick Viall be back????

As Frankenstein's ill-fated lover, Elizabeth, would say:
"Adieu! Take care of yourself; and, I entreat! write!"
Alexa

ON GIVING UP, GOING BACK TO STARBUCKS

This has been one of those weeks. One of those months, really. One of those stretches where I kinda want to quit trying to be an artiste and go get a regular job and forget I ever wanted to be a writer or a small business owner or a storyteller. It's been one of those weeks-- a project I’ve been working on for several months just sort of seemed to deflate, another project got caught once again in red tape, writing workshop inspiration sank to an all time low (probably because I didn’t really leave my house on account of the snowpocalypse), and I felt like I was back at square one in so many ways wondering why I bother.

Wouldn’t it be easier to just go do something normal where I’m not constantly putting my whole soul and artistic vulnerability on the line for the whole world to see?

I want to go work at Starbucks again. I loved working at Starbucks. I always knew what my role was every shift because they told you- you’re on bar today, or cash, or floater. I liked being on cash for good hair days when I felt like being chatty, and I liked bar for the days I didn’t want to talk to humans and could just put my head down and make endless caramel macchiatos. We had the raddest boss, I think his name was Craig?, who let us do whatever we wanted on shift, so we would pull stunts like suddenly declaring that day ‘toffee nut’ syrup day, offering toffee nut to everyone no matter what they ordered (every Starbucker knows NO ONE EVER orders toffee nut! Why the heck do they keep making it??). It was amazing how many people would agree to put toffee nut in their drink just because it was offered for free- I’m talking toffee nut strawberry frappuccinos, toffee nut lattes (okay that sounds good), toffee nut drizzled on their lemon cake.

I worked with a handful of my best friends from high school at the time (shout out to Steph, Pam, Tim, and my dear Jacqui!), (also please ignore the fact I said ‘shout out’…), and so it never really felt like work, just an extended hangout with free pastries, extreme caffeine highs, and the pure joy of getting to serve whipped cream in coffee lids to rich women’s dogs. I never felt lonely (constant insidious by-product of working from home), never really felt overwhelmed with responsibility (customer yelled at you? You told Craig. Craig made them leave. End of story), and never had to sell myself or my artistic merits to complete strangers on a daily basis in order to convince them to buy my product (it literally doesn’t matter who you are when you make people’s coffee- you even dress exactly the same as your coworkers in black outfits with little green aprons as if to say your very uniqueness would be distracting to the sale, and also that you are somehow a chef of coffee which I always thought was super cool and official feeling). It was glorious.

Sure I made $8.25 an hour back then, but with the amount I work to keep up on writing projects and run Whitespace Writers, not to mention creating new curriculum and courses for future projects, writing grants and festival submissions, and trying to keep up on “what’s new” so I stay “relevant”, I’m probably making $0.60 an hr by now. I’m not kidding, you guys.

On weeks like these, I sincerely dream of quitting it all and heading back to anonymity and artlessness. And really- would it be so bad? The world doesn’t really NEED another screenplay; it’s not going to shrivel up into a wrinkly green and blue ball if I don’t put out another play this decade. The government would probably be relieved to not have to untangle my rat’s nest of a tax-filing cobbled together from every writing project, coaching client, film festival screening and jury fee, Whitespace workshop client, and babysitting tip (jk – I don’t babysit anymore, but I admit there are weeks I have considered it simply to make extra cash and be around humans). So what stops me from doing it?? What stops me from throwing in the towel and giving it all up???

I. DON’T. KNOW.   

And that’s my problem. I can’t help myself and I don’t know why. I have to write, I need to write, I can’t really imagine existing in the world without storytelling and encouraging other people to tell their stories. I don’t know where this comes from. My husband is a musician and he says the same thing: he wishes he could just NOT do it, because it’s sometimes physically painful to get up on stage and pour your heart out and know it’s not as good as you imagined it could be, and some people won’t like or get it, and most people won’t pay attention, and the world will totally keep spinning without it. PHYSICALLY. PAINFUL. 

I sent out a film script to a handful of colleagues (I still find it funny that in university they were my friends but now they’re suddenly colleagues, as if they’re all lounging around reading my work in dark mahogany and leather clubhouses drinking scotch and wearing tweed elbow patches) for some feedback yesterday and I felt literally sick to my stomach waiting for opinions on my art/soul. Like I couldn’t eat for the rest of the day and drinking water made me want to vomit. WHY DO I DO THIS TO MYSELF??? WHY NOT JUST STOP CREATING????

Social media doesn’t help. Everywhere I look people are publishing a new novel, getting accepted to a major film festival, wracking up thousands of followers on their niche poetry account, writing in exotic locales like Toronto (okay, I just miss Toronto a lot, mostly my creative, brilliant friends Sam and Sandi- hi!). Meanwhile, I’m out here in my little home office which is, arguably, really cozy and has fur things on the floor and bright big windows, but STILL. I’m just here, slogging along, trying to churn out something that speaks to the world around me in a way that only I can speak to it. Or something like that. And I don't know why. At least this week, I don't know why.

I really don’t have a nice tidy conclusion to this post. I know next week or the week after something will jolt me out of the stupor, whether it’s the launch of our spring writing workshop (open for registration HERE!) or an online writing course (I’m working on it!), or heading to Vancouver for the screening of a short film I wrote and produced, called Chokecherry (the thing I’m probably currently the most proud of, which is ironic because the process of making it was almost a mammoth disaster).

Actually, Chokecherry (you can see a pretty little trailer HERE because why not) is a good reminder to me that making art I believe in is really the only thing that makes it worthwhile, because otherwise I really do go down the black hole of ‘why bother’. The film is a sort of lyrical glimpse into the summer of a young pre-teen girl as she begins realizing that she’s crossing the threshold out of childhood into a world that sees her as a woman, and not necessarily equal, and she tries to stay in the innocent realm of childhood as long as she can. Though the film is by no means perfect on a technical level (small budget, child actors, insane production schedule including multiple water scenes and me almost getting my baby-maker blown off by a jet ski - give us a break!), I think it's beautiful and I’m proud of the film because it does what I believe art should do- reflect the world, ask questions, but not necessarily answer them. Plus I got to make it in collaboration with another woman, my fabulous directing friend, Sandi, and have long wine-soaked conversations about art, male gaze, and womanhood, which, come to think of it, is probably two main reasons why I write: wine and women.

I write this post today in an effort to be honest about the life of at least this writer and solo entrepreneur, since I’ve been getting some emails lately asking me how to become both of those things (which I must say is infinitely hilarious to me since I literally feel like I'm flying by the seat of pants all day err day), and God forbid I give the impression that it’s all glitz and glamour (I AM wearing red lipstick and faux fur right now, but that’s literally for nothing but my own benefit, since I live in a bizarre dream world where my thoughts are clearer the darker my lipstick shade).

The fact is, I spend a lot of time a) worrying about regular cash flow, b) longing for regular interactions with co-workers, c) agonizing over so-called "authentic" online content that creates “draw”, and d) worrying about very non-artistic things like legal contracts, insurance, taxes, copyrights, and how to convince myself to put on tights and walk to the gym when it’s so warm and not-sweaty in my house.  Other people’s fun water cooler gossip is my 3pm glass of wine alone. That might sound like some people’s dream. You’d probably make a good solo entrepreneur.

I do try to combat those sucky things with good things, like trying to get out and work alongside other solo entrepreneurs. I talk a lot about marketing and business with my friends Lindsay of Elle Peters Design and Jamie of Jamie Anholt Photography, I dream about authenticity and bringing beauty into art with the poetic blogger Paige, and I rage about the strangeness of being a woman in the film and art world with local documentary photographer Elyse. Also I eat lots of good food with food blogger Christina and sometimes consider that the definition of art lies simply in a perfect, moist, buttery, gooshy piece of cake. 

Artistic collaboration and honest friendship feed my soul, remind me of why I make art, and get conversation flowing that keeps my creative mind sharp. I have to remind myself of that on these weeks when I get bogged down in the to-do lists and the striving and the comparisons and the let-downs, and the tax forms, and, and, and, and….

Or I’ll just go work at Starbucks again. Did I mention I really really liked Starbucks?

As Frankenstein's ill-fated lover, Elizabeth, would say:
"Adieu! Take care of yourself; and, I entreat! write!"
Alexa

Beating Around The Bush - My New Years Goal

When my dear sweet husband was a tall, scrawny, awkward boy of 16, he somehow convinced the local university radio station to give him and his best friend Simon a radio show, on which they played their friends' nerdy local indie bands and, for some reason, bird call soundtracks. They called their show Beating Around The Bush, and they were on from 10-11pm on Sunday nights right before a gentleman named Jimmy Twilight took over, who was known for bringing ladies-of-the-night onto his show, getting wasted, and sleeping in the sound booth. Now this was directly during the golden years of the dramatic brilliance that was The OC tv series, so this radio show brought my husband and his friend huge Seth Cohen-street cred; all you nerdy dudes can thank dear Sethy for the fact that you survived high school, and all us nerdy gals can thank babely Summer for ensuring that we lost all our nerdy dude boyfriends.

Now which part of that long-winded story is relevant to my thoughts on writing this week, you might be asking? Surprisingly, it's not Jimmy Twilight; this week I've been mulling over the name of my sig other's (see this post for my invention of that brilliant nickname) radio show: Beating Around The Bush. We were chatting about it recently and I realized that I didn't actually know where this strange idiom came from, so I googled it (you see the kind of grueling work I put in for you guys??) and learned that it's actually one of the oldest non-biblical phrases in the English language and can be traced back as far as the 15th century to the medieval poem Generydes - A Romance in Seven-line Stanzas, circa 1440:

Butt as it hath be sayde full long agoo,
Some bete the bussh and some the byrdes take.

Yes. Romantic gold right there. So here's what "bete the bussh" meant to good ol' Generydes and his pals- apparently, back then, and maybe now for all I know, when hunting parties went out to shoot birds, some of the party would go ahead and beat the bushes with sticks, because the birds they hunted like to nest in the bushes, and when the bushes were hit, all the birds would fly out of them into a great flock and the hunters could shoot at them to their heart's content. That's what the literal phrase referred to, but the idea soon morphed into a metaphor, used by, oh I don't know, old wizards with beards drinking butter beer in the parlour (that's accurate for the 15th century, yes?) who took the phrase "to beat the bush" and used it to refer to any preamble before the actual act; to 'beat the bush' then meant to 'prepare for the big moment', 'get ready', or 'compose themselves to take action'.

However, read a bit further in the same 200 word article (honestly, the amount of research I do for y'all is staggering) and you'll find out that the phrase gradually took on another meaning a whole hundred and something years later when it was published by George Gascoigne in something he simply titled (minimalism was big back then apparently), Works, in 1572:

He bet about the bush, whyles other caught the birds.

Woah, woah woah- George Gascoigne brought some fighting words! That's like the equivalent of a Beyonce album/mic drop today- essentially, he used the phrase 'to bet about the bush' as a straight-up diss, a way to chastize someone for always staying in the pre-game phase, and never moving into the actual event they prepared for, ie. shooting the birds. To beat around the bush now meant you were stuck hitting all the bushes and rousing the birds, but you never had the guts to take the next step and actually shoot them down.

Now THAT, my dear writers, hit me a bit close to home. I don't know about you, but I spend a TON of time beating around the bush (and 'beteing the bussh', and 'beting about the bush' too, probably) when it comes to my writing projects. Whether it's an idea for a screenplay, a short film, a play, or even a new writing workshop, I can spend endless hours, years even, in 'bush beating mode': preparing, planning, and strategizing for what it's going to be like when I actually start the project, but much of the time, I never actually work up the guts to write it.

Now why is this? I think we can look back at our bush beating ancestors and take a few clues from them. The way I see it, beating the bushes is easy- you get a stick, you hit some trees, you work up a sweat, all is good. You can tell yourself you're going to shoot when the time comes, but the fact is, shooting is scary, and it's way less scary to just keep hitting shrubbery. For one thing, when you do try shooting, you could miss, and failure never feels good. For another, you could do it wrong- hurt yourself or someone else if you don't do it properly. And finally, the trickiest one, you might find you're already thinking about what to do once the bird has been shot- you'll have to pluck it, clean it, prepare it for your twenty illegitimate village children! I know many of us as writers get stuck in that phase specifically- already thinking and worrying about what will happen AFTER we write the thing (our mom will see it! we'll need to find a publisher! what if people don't like it! what if it sucks? what if it's- *shudder*- successful????) BEFORE we've even started writing it! And THAT, my friends, is a death trap, because though it can feel like we're doing the work, we're not ACTUALLY doing the work. 

What's your bush, coming into 2018? What idea, dream, writing project are you beating like a madwoman- thinking about, planning, going over all the 'what ifs'- but not actually sitting down to write? Don't let all the George Gascoigne's of the world call you a 'bush beter'- it's time to start shooting those birds. Come join a writing workshop with us- I know, I know, you could sit at home and make time ten minutes before bed every night and plan that one weekend in the spring that you might get away to put some stuff down on paper. It's less scary and you really might do those things, in fact, I hope you do- but the fact is, sometimes it's time to just leap in, full force, and take your dream seriously. Ideas aren't unique- if you don't write it, someone else will. You're just lucky it's come to you now, today, and you owe it to yourself to actually begin. Welcome to 2018, where I'd like to introduce the longest hashtag ever: #stopbeatingaroundthebush (I thought it was less offensive and worrying than #letsshootsomebirds). 

There are three weekly 10-week writing workshops running in winter 2018- one in Hamilton, ON, and two in Calgary, AB (one morning, one evening). Take a leap, sign up, I promise you'll thank yourself after when you have 15-20 new pieces of writing DONE, newfound confidence in your own voice, a fabulous community of writers to support you, and are well on your way to actually writing that thing you've been beating around the bush about starting. If you aren't in the area, but you'd still like to join in, subscribe to our weekly writing prompts at the bottom of this post, and prepare yourself for a new form of workshop accessible to everyone, coming this year!

My New Years goal is not to get you to think about writing. My New Years goal is to help you get that shit down on paper. If nothing else, help me reach my own New Years goal, and #stopbeatingaroundthebush. 

As Frankenstein's ill-fated lover, Elizabeth, would say:
"Adieu! Take care of yourself; and, I entreat! write!"
Alexa

Married To A Musician: Why My Writing Should Be Better

My husband of 4 years is a musician, a guitar and pedal steel player specifically, much to my joy and chagrin. Don't know what a pedal steel is? Picture someone sitting at a piano, except the piano looks like a rectangular guitar, and they're playing with their knees and feet along with their hands, and the sound is that wah waaaah sound in the background of sad country songs by old dudes named things like Buck and Hank. The soundtrack to my life at home is literally a down-in-the-dumps-my-truck-is-broken-and-my-girl-left-me album, which can occasionally make it difficult to do things like work... or smile. Just kidding, mostly- it's lovely and very festive, shall we say, and I knew what I was marrying into- when we first met he was a touring musician with bands like We Are The City and Northcote- but that was pre-pedal steel and back then he mostly played plugged into an amp with headphones because it was too loud for roommates, and now he happily plays unplugged and unheadphoned all day err day and I try my best to live according to the soundtrack I've been provided with. I've gotten really into tassles on things and saying y'all.

But one thing I've always found hilarious is how many people ask, all giddy-like, if he plays for me. I think they assume it must be wonderful and romantic and inspiring to be married to a musician as we sit and stare into each other's eyes or something, while he sings love songs written specifically for me: "your eeeeeyes are reeeallly biiiig". In reality, he does play at lot at home, but most of what a musician is practicing at home is scales. You remember scales, right? From those few years your mom made you take piano lessons? Up the piano, down the piano, up the piano, down the... you get it. So while I'm going about my day writing, or reading, or cleaning behind the fridge, I often hear the same ten notes over and over and over and over and... ya dig?? Along with driving me to the point of insanity, however, it has also made me realize that as a writer, I don't often spend a lot of time simply practicing my "scales"- the basics of writing. We (and I do mean me specifically, but I like to say 'we' because it makes me feel like I'm lecturing everyone importantly and not just my own stubborn psyche) like to live in a fantasy world where every time we write it's new and important and perfect and spontaneous, and we don't spend a ton of time putting in the hard work to nail down those foundations.

But what are foundations in writing? Writing is creative, right? Meant to be a free-form flowing diatribe of the brilliance of my own mind only when zee muse hits, oui? Sure I EDIT, if someone is holding a gun and a contract that says they can ask for up to 3 edits to my head, but the majority of my time is spent free-falling into language bliss. But perhaps it shouldn't always be. 

If my sig other (got bored of writing significant halfway through- sticking with 'sig'- he'll definitely love it) can spend HOUR AFTER HOUR riffing up and down the pedal steel (I don't actually know if there's an up and down on a pedal steel but I get so mesmerized by trying to figure out what the heck the knees are doing it's hard to pay attention), surely I can spend some time... learning... uh... whatever it is a writer learns by doing scales...er.. might need to get some advice... hold up...

Okay, I texted him while he's at work (he's a brewer so I like to assume he's never actually working and is mostly just sitting around drinking beer all day and should be able to text me at any given moment) and got back the following response to my question of why he practices scales so much: "muscle memory 💪 = ✌️", which I think means something like "I love you so much, honey, can't wait to come home and hang out, and also it's really important to keep the muscles of your music-playing hands in good shape so you're prepared to hit cool licks when you need to reach them perfectly later on k love you bye". Something like that. Unfortunately he also wrote "when you practice the best riffs over and over you learn how to STEEL them" and I am allergic to pedal steel jokes so I stopped replying.  

But he does have a point. When I'm actually sitting down to write something important, like important as in- this is the one: the story I've been playing in my head for a while and preparing to write but procrastinating a bit cause I'm afraid; the screenplay (my chosen medium) that the big producer is waiting for and actually counts; the BIG ONE... when I'm actually sitting down to write it, if I haven't been practicing my scales, ie. if I haven't been writing a TON beforehand, every day, building my writing muscles, then the piece that REALLY COUNTS won't measure up. I'll be rusty. My riffs won't be solid. My notes won't be crisp. My tone might slip (I'm making these up at this point but you get my drift). Unless I've been deliberately taking time to just write- to play with words, to get some "bad" writing out of my system, to try on different styles and sentence structures and word choices and voices, I won't be prepared when it comes time to actually write the thing that counts. 

Dang. I promise I did not start out to write this as an advertisement for our Find Your Voice * Tell Your Story workshops, but it sort of wrote itself. Maybe by muscle memory. Who knows! But this is what we do in our writing workshops- we play, we experiment, we try on and discard styles and voices- in essence, we practice our scales of writing in a really safe and supportive environment that includes snacks. SNACKS, you guys. My husband can't eat snacks while he's practicing scales because his hands will be too slippery. And that's why writing is better than music (nailed it). 

But aside from taking a workshop with us (because we rule and we're super fun), keep in mind that when you're playing around with writing even at home, for just ten minutes, you're not NOT a serious writer. In fact, taking time every day to play around- to write little poems, flash fiction, really detailed grocery lists- is part of what makes you a serious writer, because it builds the muscle memory your brain needs to grow your writing voice as strong, clear, and unique as it can be. When you're taking time every day to imagine solid, crisp images, swapping out nouns and verbs and adjectives for better, clearer nouns, verbs, and adjectives, trying to tap in to your original voice, when it comes time to make your writing count, your brain will do it automatically. 💪 = ✌️. 

As Frankenstein's ill-fated lover, Elizabeth, would say:
"Adieu! Take care of yourself; and, I entreat! write!"
Alexa

Writing Like A Backhoe Driver (Throw Some Dirt Around!)

There are builders working 24/7 (ok, not 24/7 LITERALLY but it sure feels like it- I think the dull thud of their hammers is echoing in my nightmares) outside the front of our place and I've gradually moved from slight annoyance to extreme annoyance to a zen-like acceptance that they have been and always will be there and I should just embrace it as my path in life. I'm staring at them right now trying to find some good in their presence, and I've decided, unbeknownst to them, that they are going to become my writing prompt for the week so that I can give them some credit for being useful to my life in some small way. Sigh.

They're building a house. I've never actually seen a house go up day by day from the very beginning of empty lot, to the strange moving around of earth that looks not unlike a child simply throwing dirt from one side of the sandbox to the other, to the beginning stages of actual framing and building. Yesterday they started building the foundation, and I'm surprised to see that today they are already starting to frame the basement. Oh sorry, I was just corrected. They aren't framing, they're "cribbing" (which makes me think of crumping, which makes me picture them all gettin' down and funky with their dance moves, which makes me altogether less angry). Really though, what's interesting to me is that it all has to start with the first SLAP and THUNK of the back hoe (I don't know if that's what it's called but I'm going with that) into the fresh ground. A whole house with bedrooms and secret spaces under the stairs and bedets can only be built if that first chunk is ripped from the ground.

It made me think (ie. I forced myself to think about it and draw a conclusion): what's that first chunk for us in beginning a new piece of writing? When the blank page stares at us like a blank piece of landscape, how do we know where to begin? It can be the most intimidating and difficult part of the process, and yet I doubt the back hoe driver (again- not 100% on the official terms there) spent a ton of time (years even!) contemplating where and how (and, God forbid, WHY) to first sink the teeth of the machine into the ground. He just rolled up one morning with a Tim's coffee, put his jersey-grey hood up against the wind, plunked himself in the little seat in that box that looks like a clear phone booth, and sank the teeth (it's true- I watched him do it). He didn't worry about the next guy's job- that would be the responsibility of the crumpers or the jumpers or the smoothers or the roofers or any of those other really technical job titles. He just showed up, dug some holes, threw some dirt around, and called it a day. 

It's kind of an interesting experiment to think about writing stages as separate jobs for separate parts of my brain, instead of all of the darn responsibility falling on lil ol' me all the time. What if I could just show up, sit down, stick a hoe in the ground, throw some dirt around, and call it a day? And then the next day, send another part of me to go do the initial cribbing, and the next day, a framer. What if I didn't worry so much about what I was going to write the next day, or the next, or goodness gracious how I would end the thing?? The back hoe driver (I really should just google the correct term...) doesn't worry about whether to choose brass knobs or iron ones on the pantry cupboard doors like the interior designer eventually does. He's not concerned with any future decisions except perhaps whether to get two creams or one in his next large double-double (two, duh). He just digs dirt, plain and simple. Then he goes home and watches Riverdale in peace (what's that, you say? You didn't know that the original comics we all fell in love with featuring a certain redheaded boy and an age-old, sexism-at-its-best rivalry between a blonde and a brunette was turned into a dramatic mystery tv show?? GET ON THAT, FRIEND!). 

I'm going to try this method next week in starting a new piece of writing- I'm working on a short film about a dragon hunter with my writing partner and it's a deliciously imaginative piece that also has a higher concept, and I'm very intimidated and procrastinating like crazy as per usual because of that. Maybe it would take the pressure off if I just told myself to show up, put my jersey-grey hood up (I'm literally wearing the same thing as the back hoe driver right now, I just realized), and started with step 1:

EXT. DESERT - DAY. 
There's a dragon. It's green. It shouldn't be here, but it is. 

I encourage you, whenever you read this, to simply open up a blank document or turn to a new page in your notebook, and sink the teeth in. Don't think too hard about it, don't agonize over the right story to tell or the right place to begin it. That can all be fixed and edited later. Just throw some dirt around sentence by sentence (you have to crib before you frame... apparently), not by planning ahead or plotting or strategizing. Maybe you remove that first sentence later (maybe even the whole first page or chapter!) when your story is complete and no longer needs it, has grown past it. Maybe you keep it. Whatever you do, don't think that far ahead. There is time for that once the house has actually been built.

As Frankenstein's ill-fated lover, Elizabeth, would say:
"Adieu! Take care of yourself; and, I entreat! write!"
Alexa

PS. Just googled "back hoe driver". I think I'm right??? Although apparently it's "backhoe", all one word, which looks less like a derogatory term for a woman so I'm pleased about that.  

Ten Bad Ideas (Or: How to use explosions to get paid more)

I’m back from Toronto and road-tripping and being weirded out by the fact that all American gas stations now apparently have fried chicken bars in them, and into the full swing of things, which for me means I’m sitting alone at my desk most days staring at a blank white screen and contemplating going to work at Starbucks where they pay you decent and regular and you're called a "partner" instead of an employee which I think is nice. Writing is daunting literally every single day- it never gets much easier to sit down and actually feel confident in what I’m writing that day, or even know what I’m writing that day, and that can start to drive me a bit insane. Luckily, I’m great at procrastinating, so that helps, but eventually I do actually have to get shit done.

*Side note- my keyboard is a bit wonky and I’ve created a makeshift solution by putting a few pages of a book under one side of it to balance it out, but the book is ever-so-slightly covering a few keys that I didn’t think I’d need, including the exclamation mark, and I WAS NOT AWARE HOW MUCH I USE THE EXCLAMATION MARK!! Do you guys just think I’m bouncing with energy and joy and caffeine all day when I write these things?! You must! Because apparently the exclamation is more common to me than bronzer to a Kardashian. I’ve tried to use it like twenty times already and had to move the book solution out of the way in order to do so, and I’m ashamed, ashamed and deeply saddened, to realize how much I rely on that tiny punctuation mark to get my point across. I’ll try to take it down a notch- I’m not, as it may seem, actually sitting here vibrating with energy. I just reheated half a cold cup of coffee in the microwave and I’m still wearing my spandex from my very cold workout this morning. Plus I have a new zit on my chin. But I digress…

Back to writing and the intimidation of not knowing what to write or where to start; this is where writing prompts, those ubiquitous writing degree teachers’ aids, come in. However, as I promised in my weekly writing prompt last week (you don’t subscribe yet? WHY NOT?! They’re FREE! You can sign up at the bottom of this post! No spam- just writing prompts to inspire you!)… (broke my exclamation mark promise there but I’ll get back on the wagon now), I only send you writing prompts and suggestions that I myself would actually use, and do use, and this was one of those weeks where I needed all the inspiration I could get.

See, I’m currently working on a new short film for a producer who is also going to be starring in it. This probably sounds like a ton of fun if you are picturing filming with movie stars in Hollywood and drinking martinis dressed in fur beside an old fashioned typewriter (… just my writing fantasy? Cool cool cool…), but in reality, writing for something like this means sticking to a very small budget (small in film terms means that $10,000 for a short is pauper territory once you factor in rentals, fees, wages, insurance, food, etc), which means coming up with a story that only uses 1-2 actors (including a character who fits the type of the producer/actor), one location, and little to no special effects. Trust me- harder than it looks. Ever since I learned that a writer gets paid a percentage based on the overall budget of a film,  I’ve been throwing explosions into the script left, right, and centre to ramp those budgets up (just kidding.. sort of.. don’t tell my agent), but that won’t fly in a small, low budget short like this. SO- I needed a prompt, some inspiration, something to get the (small budget) ideas churning. Couple with this the fact that clients like to be presented with multiple ideas and usually don’t accept any of them, forcing you to scramble and come up with some half-assed idea on the fly which is inevitably the one they end up going with, and now you have to make it make sense. Fun stuff. Glam writer life, yo.

ANYWAY- I started my inspirational day by going for a walk with my parents’ two dogs, Gord and Nick. They are the loves of my life (*ahem* plus my husband, obviously…) but walking them is not as fun as it should be. Lots of pulling, and yelling, and corralling (and that’s just them- badum bum chhh!) BUT, I forgot how magical fall is in Calgary when it’s not immediately blizzarding by Sept. 2. It is SO gorgeous- the light was that cool, hard light that makes the shadows deep and long, and the trees were bright, glowing, and yellow (everyone always says fall trees are gold- NO. I WISH they were gold, honey, TRUST me- if they were, I’d just make camp in the forest and be fabulous all day err day, but they are not gold, as so many writers like to manifest. They are yellow, and yellow is nice, too, guys; we don’t all gotta go start pretending we’re walking through Fish Creek like it’s King Midas’ palace). So, on this gorgeous fall walk, I started by training my monkey mind to focus on story (I could, and perhaps should, do a whole post on monkey minds in creative brains one of these days), and first asked myself: what stories have I naturally observed this week? This is the part where I always wish I was super disciplined and carried a beautiful little notebook everywhere with me that I wrote down inspiring and interesting things as they happened to me each week. Sadly, no- I have little scraps here and there of story ideas that immediately disappear and then pop up years later inside the back cover of a book I’m re-reading and it says something like “walking today- Batman drama- cookies, funny” and I’m like WTF did I think this was going to turn into?? Instead, I have to just let my mind wander back over experiences I had that week or strange things I noticed.

This week, it included Wally, the elderly man with dementia who sat next to me and my grandpa at the old folks home while we ate lunch together this week. Wally kept insisting that my husband (who is a regular height of 6ft) “played on the basketball team” (definitely not) and then sang the old jazz tune “Five Foot Two” to him but changed the words to “Seven Foot Two”. It was clear that Wally was getting him confused with someone else, but soon Wally got everyone at the table singing the song, including my usually grumpy grandpa, a lovely woman dressed all in pink they called Princess Margaret, and a woman named Deborah who excused herself from the table to deal with “some important business with some people” and toddled off in a floral nightgown.  It didn’t seem to matter whether or not my husband wasn’t a giant and never played basketball on Wally’s team- the story was real enough to Wally and it made him very happy when everyone chimed in to sing about it. I thought about how much I’d love to set a scene at that table, with those characters, about the surreal, nostalgic conversations that dementia patients carry on. That's a film I'd watch- quirky, funny, morose, nostalgic, with a touch of bizarre. Just how I like it.  

Now I love this idea, and perhaps I’ll use it in the future, but it uses more than 1-2 characters, doesn’t have space for the profile of the actor/producer, and would not be set in one location if I wanted to travel back in time to each characters’ memories as I wanted to, so I set it aside for another time. Back to the drawing board for short film inspiration.

I’ve mentioned before I am lucky enough to work with a writing partner, but many people ask me how I can do it. "Isn’t it hard to have to compromise on ideas", and aren’t I "worried about sounding stupid and making up bad stories"? Yes, yes, and yes,  are the answers, which is why finding a writing partner that works is as difficult as finding your soulmate. In fact, I often refer in conversation to my writing partner as just ‘my partner’, and my husband reminds me that people don’t know I’m talking about a business partner. It just sounds like I’ve got some side dude down in LA who’s game to play when I am. Or maybe we both works at Starbucks together. But in truth, the writing partner relationship is a really important one, mostly because you have to be willing to get really vulnerable, which is really scary and hard on your ego until you start to master the technique. It took my partner (WRITING partner, excuse me) and I a while to get into the rhythm of not being afraid to put lots of bad ideas or half ideas out there for the other person to wrestle with and comment on, but once we figured it out, my capacity for inspiration has sky-rocketed. And that’s what I want to focus on this week for a writing prompt, because as we were trying to come up with ideas for this small budget short film, we fell back into one of our tried and true methods for breaking through when we’re stuck. We call it Ten Bad Ideas; it’s simple, but it works.

Ten Bad Ideas literally consists of one us, usually the one who got the most frustrated first, saying with exasperation “okay, ten bad ideas…” and then listing off exactly that- ten really dumb ideas that are stupid, silly, cliché, obvious, weird, whatever- the key is that these are ideas that we wouldn’t say seriously out loud because they’re so bad. And then… we almost always solve our problem. For real. It sounds crazy, but I’m going to tell you how I think it works, though it might also be magical and maybe it’s like saying Abracadabra, I don’t know, but I’m sharing it with you today in hopes you can use the magic too. You don’t need to be working with a partner (writing…) to use this tool- it works just as well for solo inspiration as well.

When you’re brainstorming, either by yourself or with someone else, our tendency is to try to sound smarter and smarter as we come up with more ideas. This isn’t a bad thing- it’s sort of how brainstorming was built- start with a small idea and work up to the best. But sometimes that can actually be hindering your process, because good ideas don’t always just grow out of the air like that, and the pressure you put on yourself and the other person to sound increasingly brilliant can stop you from being as creative as you need to be. By listing Ten Bad Ideas, you let the air out of the inflating balloon of brainstorming (can I patent that phrase? Also, how do you make the little TM symbol on your computer? I’ll add that to my list of “things I should know as a writer but don’t yet but should figure out one day and also don’t tell anyone you don’t know that in the meantime) and, with it, the ego goes too. Essentially, you’re starting from scratch, where expectations are low and you have the freedom to goof around still, aka, be creative. That’s reason one it seems to work.

Secondly, and this is especially if you are working with a partner, either in writing or even at work on a project, we can end up being mentally blocked by keeping a bunch of ideas to ourselves simply because we’re worried they sound stupid. By simply prefacing your ideas with “Ten Bad Ideas”, you’re essentially saying “okay, you’re not allowed to judge me because I know some of these might be dumb, but I’m sacrificing my dignity to jumpstart the conversation so bear with me while I exorcise these demons”. It’s a get-out-of-jail-free card, and it frees you up to get the bad ideas out of your system so they stop blocking the good ideas hiding underneath. Plus, no judgement. In fact, you might even get some kudos for admitting out loud that you already know which ideas are off the table. Get two birds stoned at once.

Thirdly, the thing with Ten Bad Ideas, and this is the most useful tool of all, is that they’re not usually all that bad. Sure, the first one might be a total stinker, but everyone else was probably thinking it too so you just unblocked them and you’re welcome. But after that, the other ideas are probably pieces that are going to help jog someone else’s creativity, or will be the missing piece from an idea your partner was working on, or will actually, now that you’re saying it out loud, turn out to be a pretty good idea. We’ve found many of our solutions in Ten Bad Ideas (I just accidentally wrote TED bad ideas, and now I’m thinking about my friend Ted and how he should totally TM that… however one goes about doing such a thing…), and kept our reputations in check throughout the process.

Normally, when I send out weekly writing prompts, they are short and relatively to-the-point, because I want you to be able to read them, digest them, and then write about them, all in the span of about 15-20 minutes. The goal is exercising our writing brain just to keep it limber, not necessarily to write our magnum opus, and so usually that means the quicker the better. But sometimes, when we are particularly stuck- when we don’t know what to write about or how to put a story together, we need a little more than a 10 minute prompt, and that’s why I expanded this week’s prompt into a whole writing post. Ten Bad Ideas can work as a writing prompt simply by sitting down and listening ten stupid things to write about. I’ll do it right now without thinking:

1.     Guns
2.     Guns and Roses
3.     Those little rosebud icing things on the tops of cakes
4.     My first birthday party I can remember
5.     Chihuahuas
6.     People who carry tiny dogs in purses
7.     Batteries
8.     Old scraps of paper
9.     That news headline about the bear stuck in a Calgary suburb
10.    Someone who meets the bear while pushing a stroller

THERE! Now I promise I actually wrote that list in about 1.5 minutes, and I didn’t think too hard about it or edit it. You can see there’s some free association in there, and several ideas are related, and several of them are bad ideas to write about. I think writing about Guns and Roses would be dumb… unless it was about someone who only tattooed guns and roses on someone. Is that dumb?? Maybe… I’ll have to ask my partner (writing) what he thinks. But I forgot about that news headline about the bear until just now, and now I think a short film about a woman with a stroller who runs into a bear would be awesome. Maybe a bit beyond my budget for this project but definitely worth considering in the future when the budget includes wildlife and animal trainers and anxiety medication for everyone on set.

My goal with everything I do on this writing blog, in my writing prompts, and in my writing workshops, is to inspire you to get writing. That’s step one. Step two is to get you writing in your own voice, and step three is to get you writing confidently in your own voice. But taking it one step of a time, Ten Bad Ideas can help with step one. If you try it this week, and I hope you do, I would LOVE to get your lists sent back to me. All you have to do is either reply in the comments on this page, or send me a private message through my contact page HERE, but it would be awesome to see how you use Ten Bad Ideas to get started. In the meantime, I’ll be here, figuring out how many explosions I can fit into my next project.

As Frankenstein's ill-fated lover, Elizabeth, would say:
"Adieu! Take care of yourself; and, I entreat! write!"
Alexa

MARGARET ATWOOD, YOU BITCH

In preparation for the book club/writing class launching this fall (guys how many hints for the book club/writing class can I fit into this post? That's my goal here), I've been reading and re-reading a ton of my favourite Canadian novels trying to decide which ones should make it into the club (I like thinking of this as a club, like we're going to get our own picture in the year book- dibs on the center spot and wearing pigtails). Re-reading these works of genius is both delightful and terrible, the former because it's so wonderful rediscovering the worlds and characters I love so much, like the zany Nomi from Miriam Toews' A Complicated Kindness who is a perfect combination of both my sisters, aka, my dream human, and the latter because it just feels bad to come face to face repeatedly with writerly genius that feels so impossible to ever replicate. It's disheartening. 

I think this is why I watch reality television (um I may or may not have watched the pilot episode of Life Of Kylie this week after a feminist blog reviewed it favourably- and I've honestly never watched any of the Kardashian shows, so it's been a strange way to come in late to the game). Because reality television is so bad, so ridiculous, with the worst scripting humanly possible and the strangest most wishy-washy declarations of emotions (Bachelorette contender: I think I'm having feelings of love for you. Bachelor: I think I'm possibly maybe in some far off future universe of feelings having odd pulsations in my nether regions for you), I don't ever feel like I have to measure up to it when I write. It's like an instant ego-boost every time someone utters another cliche ("We're meant to be"), non-sequitur ("I can't stop thinking about him, therefore we must be 'meant to be'" - OF COURSE you can't stop thinking about him! He's the only man you've seen in 7 weeks, for God's sake!), or, better yet, forgoes dialogue altogether in exchange for looking longingly and awkwardly into each other's eyes, I feel like my place as a smart, capable writer is safe in the world. My writing is better than theirs, whoever wrote the script (and you better believe someone is scripting that "reality" shit), and I can sit back smugly, secure in my writing chops, and reach for another handful of Chicago Mix.

Side note: on a recent camping trip to Vermont, I discovered that Chicago Mix is simply called "The Mix" in the States- WHAT? All Americans just instinctively know that if something is "a mix", it obviously refers to the brilliant combination of florescent orange cheese, sweet crunchy caramel, and salty pillowy popcorn?? "Yo dude, I'll bring the beers and you bring... the MIX". From now on, forget Chicago- for all we know, Chicago just hopped on that band wagon like everyone else but had the foresight to brand it first. Chicago's out- THE MIX is in.

Now, as I was saying... (literally just had to read over what I wrote so far to remember what I was saying) this summer I'm reading a handful of the top contemporary Canadian novels (*cough* for zee BOOK CLUB/WRITING CLASS in which we read a book for a month and then have a class on what we can learn about writing from that book *cough*) and feeling intimidated by them because they are so good, the writing is so tight and thoughtful and wrestled over, that I feel exhausted just thinking about how much work they must have taken to get them so- freaking- perfect. Every word of Alice Munro's short stories has been painstakingly chosen- if you read her closely, you can see that not one word can be removed- every one is necessary. Sarah Selecky- the way that woman captures every bit of subtext with a single gesture, and Heather O'Neill- the details she layers unforgettably on top of each other to create this rich tapestry of believability in the most absurd stories (hint- I may or may not be teaching you how to steal these tricks in the book club/writing class). And don't even get me started on Margaret Atwood. 

But first, here's my major confession- I haven't read Margaret Atwood. Well I read the obligatory Handmaid's Tale in high school, but I didn't really understand it, and I'm ashamed to say I only do now that Hulu's brilliant adaptation of it came out setting the story in the horrifyingly realistic present day. I've always known Atwood is the queen of Canadian literature, and that I should probably read everything she's ever written if I want to call myself a Canadian writer, but something about that obvious duty caused me to put her off, assuming I could save her work for some time later in life when I got really "serious" about writing. Now, I write professionally in multiple mediums and I still don't feel like I'm serious enough about writing (that's a therapeutic post for another time), but there's another reason for my caution at starting in on Atwood's canon, and it has to do with the b-word. 

When I was in university at UVic, I met a women at a bus stop- she was very well dressed, in her 70s I'd guess, and looked me up and down as soon as I assumed I could share the bus bench with her, as if she only barely deigned this acceptable. She declared that I looked like an arts major, which I sheepishly admitted to, and she nodded as if my ill-fitting vintage patterned dress, cardigan, and sensible shoes left no other option (on second thought...). Then she let loose with a story I've never forgotten: "I once went to a seminar that Margaret Atwood was speaking at, and waited until I got up close for her to sign my book, and then I looked her in the face and told her what I'd always wanted to tell her- Margaret Atwood, you bitch!".

To be completely honest, I actually don't remember why this woman wanted to tell Margaret Atwood that she thought she was a bitch. I know, I'm sorry, that's literally the meat of the story, but for some reason I only really clearly remember the look of pure glee on the woman's face- it was clear this was a crowning moment in her life, and I had the feeling she would have told me the story whether I was an arts major or not (and whether it was true or not!). But the comment has always left this feeling in me about Atwood- with her fascinating crown of cloudy grey curls and those narrow piercing eyes- that she was a serious woman whose very presence led strangers to declare their contempt for her. And something about that is so bad-assedly awesome to me that I've always been a bit intimidated to start her novels- fearing, as the mild-mannered woman that I am, that Atwood wouldn't approve of a measly writer like me trying to understand her brilliant work. 

And yet that's what I'm doing now, humbly, and with silent prayers to Atwood to excuse my tardiness to her books. I'm working my way through a few of her novels (choosing one for the BOOK CLUB/WRITING CLASS, TBA!), and I'm totally surprised at- 

A) the accessibility of them- my memory of Handmaid's Tale was that it was incredibly difficult to read, and now I'm having a blast with every juicy word of Cat's Eye,

B) how much sci-fi (she prefers the term "speculative fiction") she wrote- like, how did I not know this? It's my fav genre (that's not actually a link to the book club!)! Forget being late to the Kardashian game, I'm late to the one-of-the-best-sci-fi-writers-in-the-world-is-female-AND-Canadian game, and

C) how intimidated I still am to read her, yet how much more challenged and inspired I feel to make my own writing as perfect and clear and taut as I possibly can. 

Encountering good, especially great writing, can have these two effects: it can make us feel like failures- like we'll never be as good and so why even bother. Or, it can make us feel like failures who might one day be as good or at least will die trying. A fantastic Atwood quote I read this week said: "If I waited for perfection, I would never write". When I read it, I thought- "that's easy for you to say, Margaret Atwood, you bitch, but some of us would really really like to be perfect at writing!". And why not?! Writing is scary! It's terrifying, actually, when you're really truthful, and vulnerable- when you really work up the nerves to experiment with language or, worse, to bleed onto the page- to admit ridiculous things like your recent reality television addictions, or your insecurities about your own writing or relationships or success, or your true emotions and fears about the world as it looks this week from Virginia to Barcelona.

I WISH I knew my writing would be perfect each time I wrote- it would make it so much easier to start writing. The truth is, the more writing projects I complete, the more edits I end up doing on the next one, because I am constantly learning how much I still have to learn about writing, and I'm constantly feeling more and more UNequipped to tell stories in the best way, the brightest and clearest and least-offensive-yet-challenging and most-effective way. Writing is actually getting harder, the longer I write, rather than easier. And I think what Atwood is saying is that it should- it should be hard, and it will be hard, and we have to do it anyway. We can't wait for it to be perfect because it won't ever be. But we do have to start because, as Atwood said, "writing has to do with darkness, and a desire or perhaps a compulsion to enter it, and, with luck, to illuminate it, and to bring something back out to the light". We need you- your voice- to help bring something back out to the light when sometimes the world feels really really dark.  

Another quintessentially Canadian Atwood quote that I came across this week was advice she had for those who want to write: "I think the main thing is: Just do it. Plunge in! Being Canadian, I go swimming in icy cold lakes, and there is always that dithering moment. 'Am I really going to do this? Won’t it hurt?' And at some point you just have to flop in there and scream".

Firstly, I must say that I can only imagine Atwood in the most serious, plain black one-piece swim suit, her grey curls wet and plastered to her hair in a no-nonsense way before she does all this cold lake swimming, and it makes me want to forego bikinis forever in the name of serious womanhood. But also, I'm trying to take her advice more, and to encourage it in my writing workshops (and *ahem* book club/writing class)- to embrace the humming and hawing that always comes before I need to sit down and write as the necessary thing my body needs to do to prepare- like a cold water swimmer- but as something that must eventually be overcome with a scream and a flop in. Or, as Kylie Jenner so eloquently put it with her bee-stung lips in Life of Kylie, to "just live". See, I CAN count reality television as inspiring writing material!

As Frankenstein's ill-fated lover, Elizabeth, would say:
"Adieu! Take care of yourself; and, I entreat! write!"
Alexa

P.S. The WRITING CLASS + BOOK CLUB is filling up, even though it doesn't launch until October! More than just a book club for wine and gossip (though I will definitely be drinking wine), each month we will read a contemporary Canadian book and then meet together for a lesson on what writing tips we can steal from the author- from how to write fascinating protagonists, to how to use setting as a character, to how to bring your own style to new forms. I am currently keeping the reading list to myself as I finalize books, but if you're curious, please email me at alexa@whitespacewriters.com and I'd be happy to send you the list as it presently stands! Anyone is welcome, so come learn how to read like a writer, and join our fun, inviting, and friendly Whitespace Writers community! Click HERE to register!

My Vermin Obsession

I can't help it. I love them. I didn't know I loved them growing up because I lived in vermin-free Alberta (yes apparently our border guards are very respected by the BC rats), and so I didn't yet know the joys of their tiny baby crook faces, but I do now. People who love me are genuinely disgusted with my obsession. My husband takes it personally every time I steal his phone to get videos of them (my phone's camera is broken because I may or may not have dropped it in the toilet and YES IT WAS CLEAN for every single one of you who asked!!). I know it's irrational, but the fact is- I. Love. Raccoons.

I know they are supposed to be gross- they literally survive by eating trash. When I first moved to Toronto, there was a garbage strike in August and the streets stunk like you wouldn't believe, and the first raccoon I saw was the size of a bobcat- having gorged itself on the buffet of waste lining the alleyways- it didn't even blink when I came across it, just sidled past me like a tired fat old man. That summer, while some people carried umbrellas and other sharp paraphernalia to ward off the particularly aggressive raccoons, the ones who looked like they'd snatch your baby from your arms if it was holding a Cheerio, I went looking in every dark corner for them, desperate to catch a glimpse of their grubby little paws digging through trash treasures. Once, while shining my phone light (pre-toilet) onto porches, trying to find them, I came across a massive one bent over a dog's water dish, washing its face with its paws in the exact same manner I do every night- splashing and scrubbing. When my light caught him, he looked directly at me, hunched over his bowl like Golem, and gave me a stare that made me feel as if I had rudely peeping-Tommed him in his own house, and how dare I. I loved him even more for it.

Things got to another level the year we moved into the third floor apartment of one of those typical Toronto row houses- long and narrow and very high. Our apartment was in the attic of the house, and the eaves of the house were directly behind our walls. The eaves, as most Toronto homeowners know, are where the raccoons most like to abide, since, like us civilized humans, they prefer to screw, sleep, and eat in privacy under the protection the eaves offer, and in a particularly good house, they'll even find a way to chew their way into the attic itself, where a good friend of mine once startled a raccoon who was midway through stealing her rolls of Christmas wrapping paper, presumably to finish his holiday shopping with.

In our attic, the bed was pushed up against the wall, and we soon came to discover (that first night, in fact, when the Papa and Mama raccoons decided to engage in a good ol' "Mommy Daddy Dance") that a whole raccoon family lived on the other side of it. I was, of course, delighted, and enjoyed every morning that I woke to the sounds of them returning grumpily from their night of errands, squawking and squabbling with their siblings. I found it calming at night to go to bed to the sounds of them waking up, preparing themselves noisily like girls getting ready for a party together. I was struck with the feeling that we were just two normal families, living in adjoining apartments, doing our lives.

This feeling of kinship was cemented on one particular night. I had stumbled out of bed to get a glass of water and was standing in the dark attic bathroom staring at the wall, until I realized with a start that I wasn't looking at my own face reflected back in the mirror, but was face to face with the sweetest looking baby raccoon through the screen door of the window. He looked at me as if HE was also confused not to be seeing himself in the mirror, and as I stood motionless with my glass of water in hand, he reached out and put his little paw on the screen, and I put my hand on the screen (just kidding, just kidding- I'm not that into contracting raccoon diseases, but a girl can dream okay?), and as we stared at each other, both of us out to do our nighttime rituals, I felt like we were on a level playing field- two mammals in the jungle, existing side by side. 

That's ridiculous, though. We aren't the same. They are dirty vermin and I am a relatively clean human. BUT, I must say, living in the city, I forget sometimes what nature does to us- how it grounds us, and humbles us, and reminds us of our place in the world. I spend a lot of time trying to keep nature OUT in the city- screening everywhere to keep the beast-sized mosquitoes out, buying fancy new garbage cans that the raccoons aren't supposed to be able to topple (a fallacy), throwing things at the squirrels-as-big-as-cats to get THEM to stop throwing things at me. We have beautiful parks in the city, both Toronto and Calgary, but I spend an awful lot of time in my car, my apartment, and my office, and not a whole lot of time in nature.

But the wilderness, along with all the things that live in it, is a place we should return to often as storytellers, at the very least to be reminded that we are small, and not as special as we think, and just another animal in the kingdom that will be here way past our lifetime. I know I'm supposed to tell you the opposite, as storytellers- I'm supposed to tell you how special you are, how influential, and how you rise above the noise, right? And I do, usually. But I think sometimes when we feel too special, too influential, too loud, we stop creating true things, because we start believing that everything we write must be as special, influential, and loud; sometimes we stop creating altogether. I get it, though- it's really scary to think everything we make must be special, and it's a ton of pressure to put on ourselves! It can mean we start holding our stories too preciously, and we become intimidated by them, afraid that we won't be able to do them justice.

That's why sometimes a good old reunion with the wilderness, even in the form of a tiny raccoon roommate, can help remind us that we are one creature in billions and billions that will walk this earth, and we should have the freedom to write as if that's true- write a ton of stuff, good and bad, not worrying about being perfect or measuring up to the standards that us haughty humans sometimes think we've attained. In reality, we're little lowly creatures- we wash our faces just like the beasts (and not even as thoroughly, let's be honest); we don't have to take our work so seriously; instead, we should let ourselves off the hook and just a play a bit. Play a lot. Play like I'm praying the raccoons are playing outside right now (and not killing each other... it sounds a lot like killing each other). If you're feeling too scared to write, or not prepared, or like your writing has to be perfect and brilliant and measure up- go find some vermin. And be reminded that we're not much different than them. Except we get to write. 

As Frankenstein's ill-fated lover, Elizabeth, would say:
"Adieu! Take care of yourself; and, I entreat! write!"
Alexa

P.S. The WRITING CLASS + BOOK CLUB is starting to fill up, even though it doesn't launch until October! More than just a book club for wine and gossip (though I will definitely be drinking wine), each month we will read a contemporary Canadian book and then meet together for a lesson on what writing tips we can steal from the author- from how to write fascinating protagonists, to how to use setting as a character, to how to bring your own style to new forms.
Anyone is welcome, so come learn how to read like a writer, and join our fun, inviting, and friendly Whitespace Writers community! Click HERE to register!

THE UKULELE DEBATE

Gosh. I'm actually embarrassed to be writing on here again because it's been a few weeks, guys, and I don't know how the time flew by without me writing another post! I promised myself I'd be consistent this summer (said every writer ever), but my sad excuse is that I was moving, and as this was my fifth move in four years, I was not in a good head space about it, to say the least, as I HATE packing- like irrationally, exaggeratedly despise it, and I basically mentally shut down during the entire month it takes me to get through it.

For me, packing is akin to some people's horrified anticipation of the dentist- I have nightmares about it, I put it off as long as possible, and in the midst of it I spend most of my time texting and phoning everyone in my address book to ensure they know how bad of a time I'm having. Maybe it's because I've moved so much in the last ten years (over ten times- I've actually lost count), or maybe because I dislike constantly being faced with all the things I still can't bring myself to give away (I might need that pile of jangly purple Indian bracelets for an impromptu costumed Bollywood dance party!), or maybe I'm just a big baby with a total first world problem (my sister's answer to my complaint about packing was: "well then stop moving"...), but I just genuinely can't think of many things I dislike more than taking things off of shelves, wrapping them haphazardly in newspaper, squishing them into weak-bottomed boxes, cleaning said shelves for what is inevitably the first time since I moved IN, and then piling said boxes into corners whilst being confronted each time with the amount of THINGS I apparently need to own in order to stay alive.

Furthermore, as much as I like new adventures, new cities, and new apartments, I dread the inevitable self-reflection that always comes with seeing all your belongings, the things that supposedly make up your identity, laid out in front of you, forcing you to wonder how you are still at the place in your life where you're once again trying to convince yourself that you might learn to properly play that ukulele one day. I can't handle the inner-ukulele debate again, you guys, I really can't. Though I try to pair down my belongings each time, and give away huge sacks of clothing and books and records and BOOKS, things just continue to creep into long-forgotten cupboards or drawers, and I can't figure out why I felt so strongly at the time about keeping that fake plastic cigarette holder. I don't smoke. I've never smoked. But for some reason I just can't bring myself to get rid of it. What if I have to dress up as Audrey Hepburn at the last minute?? WHAT THEN, I ASK YOU????

As a writer, I do love the glamour of UNpacking, because I am essentially the leading character in my own mental novel, and I like to see how my character chooses to inhabit their new space. Will she decide to stay with the "I'm a poor but true-to-thyself artist" vibe, complete with gallery walls of art but very little furniture and/or food, or go with the "I'm a bohemian minimalist", complete with gallery walls of art and.. nothing else..? The world is my oyster, you see, and I always find myself surprised by the things I unpack- as if I'd forgotten I owned half these gems (um, because I did) and they are all small gifts I've newly received and get to reinvent myself with the help of.

Along with the joy of reinventing my life with each move, I also think it's important as an artist to shake things up for ourselves now and then- get a new perspective, see things out a different (literal or figurative) window once in a while. In my current apartment in Toronto, where I'm spending the summer working on a theatre commission that I am doing a very poor job at keeping secret (BECAUSE THEATRE! AND COMMISSION!), my view out the only proper window is, not uncommon for Toronto, a direct view into ANOTHER window that is literally two feet away.  Not my preferred writing view (which consists, in my dreams, of a field of lavender, filled with a wonderful vintage circus, bordering a shimmering sunset-drenched ocean....), but it does offer me the chance to let my imagination run wild, since they have only ever had their blinds drawn, and I spend my mornings staring at the window and thinking up all sorts of stories about the people that live inside.

Currently, since through the window yesterday I heard someone dragging something metal across a protesting floor, the story I'm naturally assuming is that a beautiful but sad woman has tragically tied a young, devilishly handsome burglar to an antique bed, where she is holding him until she decides what to do with him (since going to the police would mean she has to reveal the hideous deformity of a mole on her otherwise perfect face), but she is slowly and painfully falling in love with him because he is so heartbreakingly charming and also an orphan. The metal dragging sound was obviously the bed creaking along the floor as they attempted their first slow dance together while he is still chained by the feet to the posts.... 

Sigh. Such a romantic city, Toronto, what with the raccoons screwing in the alley and the hundreds of condoms left behind on the streetcars from frantic, back-seat love-making sessions that are apparently taking place all around me while I commute unaware. Love and inspiration is in the air, friends, and sometimes you've got to undergo the painful, self-reflecting process of packing in order to move somewhere, get a new view, and remember that there are literally millions of windows just waiting to be peeked through for new writing ideas. 

To be frank, I was actually planning on writing this week's post about the tiniest bald creature that I found dead in the alleyway beside my new apartment, that genuinely looked so much like a small prehistoric raptor that I stared at it for an obscenely long time wondering if I'd just come across the world's first tiny dinosaur since they became extinct before I realized it was also shaped like a bird and was probably, and is, a bird. I felt like there was some lesson about writing and life and falling from your nest and trying to fly in there, until I came to the conclusion that this poor guy wasn't the most uplifting example, since he must have believed he could fly and indeed, could not, no matter how much he dreamed big, and instead just straight up died- not a great analogy for new writers.

However, my urging to you, dear writer, is to spend this summer writing that truthful, terrifying thing that's been gnawing at your mind for months, maybe years, though it may be as scary, and occasionally as dangerous, as jumping out of your nest before you even have actual wings. You might have to pack some stuff before you're ready- before the mind is primed and the heart is open- you might even need to try going through old drawers and cupboards, pulling out the piles of things you think you need to survive, and seeing if you can live without them. But once you've packed that shit up, you might realize that your identity wasn't as tied to them as you thought, and you might find you are staring at a blank new canvas- you might even discover you're actually staring out a whole new window. The story in the back of your mind that is dying to be written will thank you for clearing out the clutter so it can actually speak, and live, and breathe. OR, you might finally learn to properly play the ukulele. Either way, it's a win-win.

As Frankenstein's ill-fated lover, Elizabeth, would say:
"Adieu! Take care of yourself; and, I entreat! write!"
Alexa

P.S. In October I'm launching the WHITESPACE WRITERS' BOOK CLUB, a project close to my heart because it means I get to spend more time with you fabulous writers and book lovers of Calgary! More than just a book club for wine and gossip (though I will definitely be drinking wine), each month we will read a contemporary Canadian book and then meet together for a lesson on what writing tips we can steal from the author- from how to write fascinating protagonists, to how to use setting as a character, to how to bring your own style to new forms.
Anyone is welcome, so come learn how to read like a writer, and join our fun, inviting, and friendly Whitespace Writers community! Click HERE to register!

When Alexa Met Nancy

Sitting across from me at the dining room table where I usually work (as opposed to the nice office that awaits me upstairs, which is decorated with all the inspirational things that are supposed to help me write but instead end up making me feel nervous and thus drive me downstairs to the much-less intimidating dining room table most days) is a pile of darkly yellow books with scruffy edges, blocky block font, and the telltale profile on the spine of a "strawberry blonde" haired woman. With titles like The Clue In The Diary, The Clue of the Broken Locket, and The Clue In The Old Album (people are just leaving clues EVERYWHERE, you guys), they hold stories of mysterious twists and turns discovered by a trio of amateur sleuths called Nancy, Bess, and George (yes, a woman named George- they were so risque in the 30s). If you haven't yet picked it up (you heathen) - I'm talking about the ubiquitous Nancy Drew novels, all somehow written by Carolyn Keene who apparently never ate or slept but churned out 175 books in her pseudonominous (I just made that word up) lifetime.

I was first introduced to good ol' Nan at the age of 7 just as my family underwent a traumatic move from far-northern Edmonton to the worldly grip of Calgary (I tried to surreptitiously move my belongings to my best friend Andrea Burritt's house as I'd decided to remain in Edmonton and live under her bed instead, but her parents called mine and outed me). Nan thus became my new best friend since she was always on amazing adventures very similar to my cross-provincial move, and also because she had that previously-mentioned "strawberry blonde" hair, which I had never heard of but made me think of summer and dessert and everything nice that I had left behind in my forever-home of Edmonton (I got over it, okay, you guys, I just really liked that we lived near West Edmonton Mall and that my backyard had this tree with little buds on it that looked like mini corn-on-the-cobs).

What I ALSO liked about Nancy and her pals was that they were the stars of the story- sure they had the occasional lawyer/doctor boyfriend (Ned- I'm looking at you) who flitted around in the background saying things like "be careful, Nan" or "has anyone seen my hair gel" (I'm assuming this last one), but it was straight up the badass gals that took down the badass gangsters in the books- people doing such dastardly things as making clanging noises in old mansions, stealing heirloom jewels, and dressing up in ghostly white sheets to celebrate, I assume, being badass gangsters. Nancy was smart, level-headed, charming but not coy, resourceful, and, most of all, brave. Like, that woman never met a dark staircase or a black dungeon she didn't immediately explore with a purse-sized flashlight.  At a time when my world had been rocked by grave transformation (new house had no tree with cobs and the nearest mall was SOUTHCENTER- gag) I genuinely felt solace in knowing that a future awaited me in which I could grow up to be like Nancy- solving crimes with my girlfriends, having a casual boyfriend when it suited me, and doing it all in a well-fitted pencil skirt.

Nowadays, though I do occasionally solve fictional crimes with the fellow writers I workshop with, I have a fairly non-casual husband and generally prefer a working uniform of all-grey sweatsuit (see this article) to pencil skirts. However, what Nancy modelled for me was surprisingly progressive considering that the books most young women are directed towards now usually include the words "Gossip" and "Girl" in their titles; I can't help but wonder if young women (or even 7 year olds!) now have fictional hero options like the strong and no-nonsense leadership of characters like Nancy and Bess and George to look up to? Maybe this is completely naive and judgemental of me, as I don't have access to a 7 year old or a 17 year old whose reading habits I can clarify, but I look back now at how captivated and inspired I was by detectives-in-skirts who weren't distracted from their case or their friendships by dark and handsome men with bad (or even good) intentions, and I wish and hope there are heroes like that for the young nerdy bookworm women of today to feel inspired and empowered by.

Mind you, my obsession with Nancy might have gotten a tad out of control by the time I moved into my new school, where I was given a desk at the very end of the last row in the back of the classroom, which meant I could make my way through my Nancy mysteries unimpeded by things like lessons or worksheets because my elderly teacher never ventured that far back in the room. The one time she did, she found me nose deep in The Secret At Shadow Ranch (the 1965 version- a real mind bender) with a pile of empty worksheets in front of me from two days worth of class time. To be honest, I don't remember what my punishment was, but I do remember that Nancy solved the mystery of the curse of Dirk Valentine after she got out (on her own! using nothing but a hair pin and spit, probably!) from being trapped in a ghost-town rockslide.

The fact remains- Nancy gave me proof that there were strong women doing strong things in the world, and that even if I was a bit on the nervous side, like Bess, or on the independently boyish side, like George, there was a precedent for me to be strong, and brave, and smart in a world that is sometimes full of dastardly people who want you to feel otherwise. Thinking about her makes me want to write more stories about badass women doing awesome things like overthrowing corrupt governments, risking their lives for their kids, or negotiating with aliens. My heroines might not always have strawberry blonde hair (my best friend in university did, though, and I finally got to see that a. it is real, and b. strawberry-blondes really do have more fun) but they often work collaboratively with other rad women, occasionally have great male sidekicks, and sometimes wear really fabulous pencil skirts.

As Frankenstein's ill-fated lover, Elizabeth, would say:
"Adieu! Take care of yourself; and, I entreat! write!"
Alexa

Writing While Wasted

I mentioned in my first post on here that I was working on a project about Hemingway- the great bear, “Papa”, the man who invented himself into his own legend, and then couldn’t live up to it. I’ve been extremely fortunate to be working on the project with two of my favourite people, a Canadian acting legend and his amazing partner, Wendy, a dazzlingly fabulous professor and book reviewer/interviewer who won me over the first time we hung out outside of work by suggesting a coffee shop to meet at and then adding, “it’s a great coffee shop because they serve whiskey”. I knew we were meant to be soulmates after that.

For this project, which is a theatre piece, I’ve read almost every novel good ol’ Hem wrote at this point, along with a landslide of short stories and many biographies, and at some point, out of sheer amazement, really, I actually began to keep a list of the types of drinks and alcohol he mentions throughout his writing and the stories of his life.

There’s the good ol’ bottle of champagne, which he was known in later years to drink for breakfast (with cold vodka) the way the rest of us start out with a cup of coffee, and he was very picky about his champagnes, too- he once anchored a boat during a storm near a restaurant that didn’t have a wine list he favoured, and since the restaurant had no dock, he wrapped his clothes around a bottle of champagne and swam with one hand from the boat to the restaurant in choppy, angry waters just to avoid drinking something he didn’t like.

A typical day in his early years would begin with cold cups of Pernod, move on to glasses of Scotch with half a lime that he preferred to squeeze himself, and finished with brandy in the evening to calm his life-long night terrors. He liked to carry goatskins of wine with him whenever he was travelling, and you have to remind yourself when you’re reading everything he records drinking in a day that he didn’t include wine in that list because he didn’t really consider it alcohol. In his rowdier years, which was basically all of them, he did love a glass (GLASS, not a thimble, not a rinse, not a shot, a GLASS) or two of absinthe, of which he once remarked in a letter to a friend in 1931: "got tight last night on absinthe and did knife tricks. Great success shooting the knife underhand into the piano.” In fact, a “pleasant drink” he enjoyed was a jigger of absinthe, topped up with champagne, of which he recommended you “drink 3 or 5 slowly” (and then, I presume, die, since he called the drink Death In The Afternoon after his book about bullfighting). 

Although an odd choice for one of the world’s self-professed manliest men, he adored daiquiris which he discovered when he lived in Cuba, and he dedicated some great poetic lines to it, remarking once that the frothy drink "looks like the sea where the wave falls away from the bow of a ship when she is doing thirty knots” (I’m assuming this was after the time he reportedly drank 16 double-shot daiquiris in one sitting, when presumably EVERYTHING looked like it was swimming in waves). 

Later on, perhaps tiring of writing and dreaming of a get-rich-quick scheme, he declared he had invented a method "that would make him famous" whereby he would pour water and whiskey into a glass, put it in the freezer, and then remove it later with the water frozen on top of the whiskey, so when you drank the whiskey it melted a path through the water and emerged ice cold, like drinking an ice berg. He began any old day with a pitcher of Bloody Mary’s, and his recipe makes me want to gag, personally, because I’ve never understood the drinking of cold tomato juice, worchestershire sauce, and vodka, but this was a meal to ol’ Hem, washed down with a few shrimp that he insisted eating whole- head, tail and all. And of course it was common sense to him that you drank tequila WHILE you sailed a boat, since Hem called this “the steering liquor”, and you drank beer AFTER you sailed, once you’d wrestled a giant marlin from the deep seas. There was a real method to the madness, supposedly, but it seems to me more like his madness WAS his method, the method he used to write the stories that would make him the century's most famous writer.

Now either you're reading all of this and never want to drink again, or, like me unfortunately, you now find it hard to sit down and read a Hemingway without a drink in your hand; I’ve taken quite a liking to his favourite Scotch on the rocks with half a lime, and I do in fact have one beside me now as I type. 

But, there is a connection here beyond the fact that Hem had strange and obviously diagnosis-worthy drinking habits. This legendary manly man believed that all the cavorting and drinking and passing out and hangover nursing was not only key to the writing process, in fact it was essential to the writing process, and he has influenced entire generations of writers to believe this to be truth. This strange belief that a lifestyle of excessive drinking and drunkenness will somehow turn you into the next Hemingway, I’ve come to find, is a sort of rumour that Hemingway himself invented and encouraged. Not that he believed anyone could become the next Hemingway, but he did seem to believe strongly that unless a writer was willing to completely obliterate himself in the name of “books!” and “story!” and “adventure!”, he would have nothing to write about. His famous quote, “in order to write about life, first you must live it”, has come to mean to many writers that which Hemingway demonstrated: “living life” apparently means abandoning your loved ones whenever you are bored, taking off to Paris to avoid previous commitments, and drinking insatiably until you've blacked out, all so you can wake up and write about it.

Now, over fifty years after his death, his alcoholic blur of a lifestyle has taken on the hazy rosy sheen of the “romance” of the writer, and I knew many a young writer throughout my education who took this to heart, even bringing flasks of whiskey to class as if the burden of learning were too ordinary to bare for these desperately unique souls (okay full disclosure- the person with the flask of whiskey was me during a particularly angsty period of my masters degree, but it proves my point, yes? This myth of the perpetually tragic writer is practically taught in first year poetry classes).

This romantic torch was taken up by future generations of tragic (mostly male) writers that came after Hem- the Bukowskis and the Kerouacs, who sent many of us young artists on drunken road trips in search of the elusive “experiences” we were taught we needed in order to call ourselves writers. Hemingway himself was insistent that writers only write about what they know, so he took it upon himself to experience everything, and that took a good amount of energy and, apparently, drunkenness, to survive the broken marriages and broken friendships and broken bones that came from his extraordinary desire to experience everything he deemed worthy of writing about. This type of obscenely adventurous lifestyle wasn’t even liveable by the great adventurer himself, however, as the pain of all the brokenness mentioned above eventually led to him to take his own life quite young, at age 61. And yet that’s the part of the story many of us writers forget about.

Many people that come through my writing workshop are so nervous that their lives are too boring to write about, that they often end up starting out the first class or two with cliched stories about stereotypical characters we’ve heard speak many times before. This is not wrong- in fact it’s a wonderful place to start from where we feel safe telling stories we know, stories we are familiar with and that have been proven to work. But I think that fear comes from the detriment that has been done to the idea of what a writer should know and have experienced, rumours and precedents set by writers like Hemingway that said unless we were tragic figures ourselves- unless we were drunk by noon, destroyed our relationships, and perpetually hungover, we haven’t lived exciting lives worthy of writing about, and that belief is so so so so dangerous, not to mention dead wrong.

What my students learn over the course of the workshop, what I deeply desire to instil in them, is the knowledge that their own stories- the mundane public school, the childhood in the suburbs, the life of a mother or father with a 9-5 job- is JUST as worthy of telling as the story of a drunken spree across Spain in 1925. The vivid picture one student painted of waking up in her grandfather’s hand-built cabin to oatmeal sprinkled in brown sugar on a cold winter morning, or the quiet moment one student penned of holding her young daughter in a pool for the first time, or the memory one writer wrote of a man in his small Saskatchewan town who made the papers by joy-riding his truck down Main Street- these stories are gold- they are life truly lived, and most importantly, they NEED to be told.

You don’t need to have lived a life like Hemingway in order to call yourself a writer. You don’t need to have travelled widely, had four wives, countless lovers, houses in multiple countries; you needn’t have almost died in two consecutive plane crashes on safari in Africa, or been blown up by an Austrian trench mortar in WWI, or almost bled out from scratches made by lions you tried to tame at the local circus, and you CERTAINLY do not need to have been drunk out of your mind the entire time. ALL you need to do to be a writer is to have lived. You don’t even have to have left the country, or your hometown, or even your house. As the writer Flannery O’Connor puts it: “anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” 

So if you’re not writing because you’re worried you haven’t lived enough yet, or had enough bizarre adventures, or had your Eat Pray Love moment, I beg you not to let this stop you. Hemingway was a legend for a reason: legends aren’t necessarily real- they’re like fairytales, and the more I read about him the more I see beneath the legend to a man who needed to drink in order to live a life he felt worthy of writing about, and even then much of it was embellished or a flat-out lie. You- I want to know YOUR life, not the tragic life of another overly dramatic man drinking his way through Europe or America- I’m bored of those stories, we’ve heard them too many times. I want to know instead about the strange nightmare you always had as a child, the unsightly thing your father kept under the porch, that one night you climbed up a tree to spy on your neighbour. Sure, you might need that glass of wine (or Scotch on the rocks with half a lime- I highly recommend it!) beside you for the courage to write truthfully, but you certainly don’t need it to give you a life worth writing about. 

As Frankenstein's ill-fated lover, Elizabeth, would say:
"Adieu! Take care of yourself; and, I entreat! write!"
Alexa

How To Make It As A Writer

Guys. Can we just agree to think of today’s post as more like one giant aside from everything else I’ve been rambling about? Like imagine we’re walking down 17th Ave together, OR- ooo, sitting in the little pub at Guild Hall (it’s so fancy inside, all leathery and green- I feel like a legit writer when I sit in there, and I take all the help I can get in feeling legit) and imagine we’re having a conversation, and it’s going really well and it’s super deep and we’re gettin’ all up in to the details of things and our feelings and stuff, but then I lean in really close for a sec to be like “sorry to interrupt, but I just have to point out that there is a man outside the window dancing the chicken dance without any pants on”. That kind of aside- that’s what this post is today.

I first want to point out that I AM wearing pants while I’m writing this*, like actual real pants that have a zipper and a button and everything, which is a far cry from my usual all-grey sweat suit that is the required uniform of everyone-who-works-from-home.  Sometimes I’ll literally be in it all day, and then right before my husband comes home I’ll quickly change into real clothes so it looks like I’ve just had my life all put together all day err’ day. Anybody else?? I mean honestly, I don’t know how people do it who go to work (like in an actual building with elevators and stuff) wearing pants with buttons, and then they have to sit at their desk all day with that little button just nestling into your skin like it’s trying to be buried there, and the zipper imprinting race-tracks into your stomach like a Mack truck skidded to a stop on it. I can take about ten minutes of that crap before I’m back in the grey one-piece for the day- in fact, now that I think about it, the TRUE fire burning under my butt that keeps me motivated to “make it” as a writer (more on whatever that means later) is really just the fear of having to go back to a job that requires regular pants with non-stretchy waistlines. It’s enough to make me take even the worst freelance jobs just to avoid this hell-on-earth scenario.

But back to the aside- I want to address that little comment I threw in up there about “making it” as a writer, because this is something I talk about a lot with my students, and it’s something I grapple with literally every day of my life.  I’ve been working as a freelance screenwriter and playwright for about five years now, but up until last year I always had something else going on- I was in school for a while, first my bachelors and then the ridiculous masters, and then I was teaching at a college in Toronto. Writing was this thing I did on the side of my “regular” things, and I didn’t worry too much about whether I was “making it” or not- I had my bills paid in other ways, and the money I made writing was just icing on my not-at-all-gluten-free cake.  I wrote what I wanted to write, for whomever I wanted to write for, and got some pretty rad opportunities in the process.

And THEN, suddenly it’s 2016 and my husband and I decide to blow up our lives, leave Toronto, and head west to be closer to family and my parent’s dogs (but like actually- if you met them, you’d understand). I loved teaching and was sad to leave my school, but I didn’t feel like going back to academia where I had to mark students on their writing, which hurt my soul. I also knew in my heart that the time had come to give writing full-time a try, as petrifying as that seemed. And so I did- I landed an agent at the beginning of that year and a film writing gig that seemed too good to be true (um, it was, but that’s a story for another time), and everything seemed to be headed in the right direction. But suddenly, now that all my attention (and identity!- no backup ‘teacher’ label to convince all the concerned dads-of-friends that I could “support myself”) was in writing, the question of whether or not I was “making it” began to consume me, and loomed in front of me larger and larger every day, until this past summer, where I was feeling crippled from it- barely able to write or work or do anything. Now that I was focusing the majority of my time, and the majority of my expectation for a pay cheque, on freelance writing, it suddenly got a whole lot scarier, and harder, and no matter how many goals I met, the bar for “making it” seemed like it just kept slipping out of reach. Any of you in a creative profession, or any profession I suppose, know what I mean? When that line gets blurred between the desire to create art, and the desire to “make it” in your artistic sphere, it can leave you (as it left me) feeling like a failure at both.

Enter a fantastic book that I read a while ago but suddenly started calling to me again from my dusty shelf- Writing Alone and With Others by Pat Schneider, a title that basically sums up my current life writing all day on my own, with occasional reprieves writing with others in my workshops. I cracked it open on a particularly desperate day and it was like receiving a perfectly balanced on-the-rocks margarita when all you’ve been getting is the weak slushy kind, aka my kinda heaven. I could write twenty posts on the gems of truth in that book that my soul lapped up like wine at happy hour on a Friday (that reminds me- it’s 3pm- brb), but for today’s aside, I’ll just mention the one truth that really helped me find my way out of the hamster-on-a-wheel race to “make it” with my writing. In one chapter, dear Pat (who I imagine drinks a lot of tea and wears homemade sweaters) makes this simple but brilliant statement: “the goal and the true discipline [of art] is completion”.

 . . . . . . .

Think about that for a second. The only goal of your art, in my case writing, is completion. That’s it. That’s all we can shoot for. We can’t focus our goals on “making it”, on getting published or making lots of money or winning an award. Yes these things are nice and might come into play once or even a handful of times in our lives if we’re lucky, but these things CANNOT be the reason we make art. The goal of making art is simply to complete it. If we have felt the strong, strange urge to begin it, our only objective should be to ensure we finish it. We should also want to complete it to the best of our ability, sure, but art is also not perfect and rarely lives up to our original vision for it anyway. ALL we can focus on is finishing what we started.

Amy Poehler in her awesome autobiography Yes Please put it a different way where she said, and I'm paraphrasing, “We just put our heads down and did the work”, ie. we didn’t look around seeing who noticed our work, how much we were getting paid for our work, or if our work was getting us more work. Her comment was in regards to writing and making the fabulously hilarious tv show Parks & Recreation, which, though it is a smash hit now, was barely noticed and constantly on the verge of being cancelled for the whole first season. But Amy (I think she’d definitely tell me we’re on a first name basis) said they couldn’t focus on that, on worrying and gauging whether or not their show had made it- if they did, they’d wind up quitting out of discouragement. All they could do was put their heads down and do the work. Their only goal was to complete their art.

I don’t have much more to say about this, that’s why this week’s post kind of felt like a strange aside. I usually try to wrap my thoughts up in a brilliant closing paragraph with three bullet points and five adverbs (or something like that), but I think this week I just want to leave you with this one simple thought for your own writing, your own art.

The goal of your art is simply completion. That’s all your art asks of you. That’s all you can really truly give it. How might changing your goals to echo that sentiment change how you approach your art this week, this month, this year?

Ahh, one more aside, so bear with me- I do need to throw in one more sign of “making it” as a writer, and that is…. finally getting a super rad logo for your website! Check out all that fancy lettering up at the top where my old boring logo used to be. That pretty logo you see is new, and my friend Nikki made it and she rules (like her website is actually nikkirules.com for real)- it’s actually her real handwriting up there so thank you, Nikki, for having amazing penmanship on basically your first try. Do you guys know how stressful creating a logo is for someone like me who deals strictly in words and has no visual talent whatsoever? At first I was just like- um, I don’t know, I want something kinda writer-y, and like maybe pretty but not too pretty ‘cause the workshop’s not just for ladies, you know? And Nikki somehow interpreted that and was just like “BAM- you mean like this?”- I imagine her presenting it like a fancy French waiter presents a meal on a silver platter- voila! Does zis pleez zee madam? ..Yes, yes it does.

*Full disclaimer: though I did indeed start out wearing real pants while writing this post, you may have noticed that I left halfway through to get a happy hour cocktail. No, not somewhere fancy- I poured leftover wine into a rinsed out coffee cup in my kitchen, if you must know- not all of us are living the Kardashian lifestyle every day, guys. Anyway, after pouring said wine, it felt ridiculous to continue wearing real pants, like a strange façade I was keeping up when my true self was dying to be let out like the prince inside the Beast. Alas, I caved, but I compromised on wearing leggings instead of sweat pants, which everyone knows you can tuck into a pair of boots and leave your house in without shame these days, so it was basically a win-win all around.

As Frankenstein's ill-fated lover, Elizabeth, would say:
"Adieu! Take care of yourself; and, I entreat! write!"
Alexa

How The Enneagram Personality Test Sort Of Helped Me Stop Procrastinating & Start Writing

So I know everyone and their myna bird is talking about the Enneagram personality test lately, and if you haven’t heard of it or done the test, you’ve probably at least heard someone say something obnoxious while you were speaking like “mm, that’s such a 1 thing to say”, or “it’s interesting because you’re a 5, so..”, or even “just because you’re a 7 doesn’t mean you can drink all the leftover prosecco yourself”, etc. 

A couple weeks ago, I did finally succumb to letting two of my best friends give me the test, and I stretched out on their flower-patterned couch with a dog named Albert on my lap and steeled myself to face my deepest shames in front of two people who I hoped would still like me after. It was a genuine psychology sesh, and though I went into it totally thinking I knew which one I was (the best one, obviously), I was one of those people who was actually completely surprised at their personality number (7), and by the end I was basically dissecting my entire life story and every choice I’ve ever made among the rose-garden of said flowery couch. Let me tell you, it was not fun realizing (as most 7s do who finally learn what the consequences are of trying to create a 24/7 party of their entire lives) that I’m basically a big baby who, if not constantly entertained by interesting conversation, stimulating media, or planning fabulous getaways, is grumpy/sullen/reckless and basically running terrified of feeling any sort of negative feeling at all times. These negative feelings include pain, sadness, frustration, anger, or even and probably most frequently, boredom. Trust me, you want to be bffs with a 7- we’re a good time. But you don’t want to be our partners when it’s time to actually buckle down and do real-life-normal-people things like clean the bathroom, do taxes, or commit to anything beyond the next half hour. Unless of course you’ve managed to turn these things into some sort of fun game, in which case, bravo and also see section above re: how to entertain a big baby.

Okay, I promise you this post is still about writing and not another sermon about how the Enneagram will change your life yada yada (IT WILL- DOOO IT). Here’s the connection: one fascinating tidbit the Enneagram teaches is how each personality type, though they might display similar actions, is actually motivated by different reasons or fears behind those actions. For example: the action of procrastinating. We all do it, but our reasons behind doing it are different depending on our personality. This has helped me understand why, when I’m trying to answer one of the biggest questions I get from my writing students which is HOW DO I ACTUALLY DISCIPLINE MYSELF TO SIT DOWN AND WRITE FOR PETE’S SAKE, I can’t actually give them all the same answer; it doesn't work. Until you really know WHY you procrastinate, you won’t be able to break the habit when it comes down to actually making time to write. 

The thing with writing is that most of us WANT to do it (at least I’m assuming this is true because this is a blog about writing and if you’re reading it and you detest writing I’d question why you don’t go find a great blog about something that will make you happy, such as kittens). We do. We think it will be healthy for us, calming, therapeutic even. We think we have a story that really truly does need to be told. We think we might even enjoy telling it. So WHY is it that we don’t do what we want to do?? Paul in the Bible had the same problem: "For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out" Romans 7:18. So, like, this is serious biblical shizzah, you guys. Why do we procrastinate the goodness of telling our stories? What stops us from writing when we really truly want to do it?

Let me tell you what I learned about why I, a 7 (the “enthusiast” as we’re generously named), have trouble actually sitting down to write every single day, despite the fact that it is my career, despite the fact that I love it, despite the fact that I am sometimes even pretty good at it. You see, 7s are typically running from feeling any pain at all, as I mentioned above, and we prefer to do only the most exciting things in front of us at all times. So that means even if I finally get a coffee and trek up to my office and start the heater and put on Sigur Ros and sit down to write, if literally ANYONE texts me to ask if I’m free (I can only guess that it’s because I’m a writer that everyone assumes I must generally be free at all times) for coffee or a walk or a root canal, I’m like HEEEEELLLLL YAAAAAAASSSS and I’m gone. And I’m realizing that it’s not because I don’t like writing, or because I’m lazy or because I’m not meant to be writing, but it’s because writing is HARD, especially the part where you actually have to start, and my tiny #7 pea brain can’t handle things that aren’t immediately super fun, and so my initial response is to, well, procrastinate.

Enneagram often talks about your inner voice, and while some numbers have an inner voice that can be a pretty cruel critic (so I’m told by my #1 perfectionist friends), MY inner voice (as one of those 1s pointed out) is basically Karen from Will & Grace- at pretty much any time I actually try to get any work done, Karen pops up and is like “oh honey, why do you care so much? Have a cocktail! It’s not like anyone cares what you’re writing anyway, it’s basically happy hour!”. As you can imagine, Karen is a super fun voice to listen to. Sometimes I wish I had the cruel inner critic voice of 1s, because at least SOMEONE in my head would be pushing me to get work done. But no. I’m stuck with Karen. And she hates writing because to do it right is kind of hard. And Karen don’t do hard.

But let’s talk about those 1s for a second. 1s, the perfectionists, also procrastinate, but their motivation is different. Because 1s are holding themselves to such a high standard all the time, they’ll procrastinate doing something that they aren’t 100% sure they will be able to do perfectly. And honestly, who can ever be sure that what they are going to write is going to come out perfectly? Like.. no one. Except maybe Karen after about five Manhattans. She feels confident she could out-write Margaret Atwood at that point. But you see- if you are a 9 and you desperately want to write, but you find yourself afraid of or avoiding it, I can’t just tell you the same thing I tell myself, which is: "don’t worry, Karen, this is only going to be hard for like ten minutes" (at which point she says “that’s what she said”), "and then it’s going to be the funnest thing you’ve ever done in your life!" That motivation/inner voice pep talk won’t work on a 1, because 1s are like “FUN? Who said anything about fun? I want this to be perfect! I want this to be ready for Can-Lit the moment it flows onto the page! I’m not here for FUN”, and then I imagine you spitting at my feet or something.

What I’m getting at is that for those of us who want to write, and dream about it, and itch to do it, but can’t seem to get started, there is no blanket solution to getting over this problem. It might actually take a bit of work to get to know yourself, and your true inner motivations, and understand what fear is stopping you from telling your story. If you’re a 2, it might be because you fear it’s selfish to write because it’s not directly helping anyone. If you’re a 3, you might be afraid of what other people will think of you if you write, if they’ll think you’re good enough or if it’s stupid. You might be really afraid of what your mom will think if she reads it, and tell yourself you’ll wait to write when she’s dearly departed. You 4s might procrastinate writing because you’re afraid people will find out you’re not as interesting as you want them to believe, or you’re afraid YOU’LL find out you don’t have something interesting to say after all. 5s are probably afraid it’s a waste of time, 6s won’t start at all unless someone else tells them they have to, 7s (see above re: voice of Karen, cocktails, etc), 8s are probably afraid to start writing because they might have to be vulnerable, and 9s are worried about rocking the boat too much if they try writing the truth of their lives. MORAL OF THE STORY: we are ALL afraid of writing! And we ALL procrastinate doing it, it’s just that our motivations, our fears that get in the way, are different, and can’t be solved with one general piece of advice. I encourage you, then, to take some time to find out who you are, to examine the fears that are holding you back from writing, from telling your story or writing the dreams you’ve had in your mind for ages. I’m not saying it will make it easier to stop procrastinating, but hopefully you’ll come to understand why you do it, and perhaps even learn some tools to overcome it (aka plying Karen with ENOUGH cocktails that she slurs her words so badly you can’t understand all the fun things she’s telling you to do instead of writing). 

I apologize for being an Enneagram preacher, and if you have no idea what I’m talking about and you kind of want to, you can check out a cool resource HERE, or I strongly recommend the book Road Back To You by Ian Morgan Cron & Suzanne Stabile. It’s the original test I did on my friends’ therapy couch that had me both laughing at the accuracy of pinpointing my personality and also cringing in humiliation at having my inner demons outed. But as they say, ‘know thyself and the truth shall set you free’, or something like that. I’d look up the actual quote for you but I’m a 7 and that doesn’t seem very fun right now- there’s prosecco with my name on it downstairs and after writing this post I’ve EARNED it, PALS! #7 OUT.

PS. If you want to try writing, come back to writing, or continue writing with inspiration and community (and beat those fears that are telling you to procrastinate writing until next month/year/lifetime) a new Find Your Voice * Tell Your Story workshop is running this spring, and I would LOVE LOVE LOVE to have you! Space is limited, and registration is open, so check out more HERE and sign up soon!

On Turning 30 And Wishing I Was 90

So… I’m turning 30 next week. Shocked? I know I look sixteen in the wedding photo on my About page, like some sort of child bride; plus with the addition of my sisters also wearing white in the photo, it’s like a whole child bride/sister wives thing going on. Trust me, I am now aware of this troubling illusion. But no. I’m almost 30. And my husband only married one of us.

It’s interesting all the unsolicited advice I’ve received lately as 30 creeps closer- I get a lot of ‘don’t worry, it’s not as bad as you think’, and ‘just don’t think about it and it’ll be like any other year’ and, my personal favourite, ’30 is the new 20 anyway’. Good God, I hope not! I wouldn’t want to be turning 20 again for anything, except maybe the courage to have both blonde and black streaks in my hair at the same time (I still have to stop myself from using the word ‘streaks’ when I go to the hairstylist.. old habits die hard). What has shocked me about all the advice, however, is how negative it mostly is. It’s like everyone is patting me sadly on the back as I enter the last game of my football career or something- “ah well, she had a good run"; "we can’t all stay young forever”; "she’ll have a great career in broadcasting if she plays her cards right” (perhaps that one’s a bit of a stretch, but you get the idea). But though aging might be the death of a career as a footballer (is that a real noun?), or a model, or Hugh Hefner’s girlfriend, I think it’s quite the opposite for a life as a writer. In fact, I think every year I grow older I grow closer to becoming the best writer I can be. 

I will say, my earliest stories as a wee youngen were pure gold, I’ll give myself that. I had a lot of trouble with endings, so inevitably they mostly ended with someone ‘waking up from a dream’, but my imagination was purer when I was 10, untainted by a commitment to realism or really a basic narrative structure of any kind, and so I imagined brilliant stories about rocks that turned into children, or fairy colonies that lived in the river bed, or even a particularly well-received musical entitled Precipitation, Condensation, Evaporation (highly influenced by my current science-fair research at the time).

That immediate willingness to write whatever came to my imagination is something I still envy, as a few writing degrees later, I have the voices of all my peers and professors in my head already critiquing my strange dreams before they even make it to the paper. So though I will agree that it is easier to write when you are younger, simply because there are less voices telling you not to (if you’re lucky) than as you get older, easier does not necessarily equal better writing.

At 10, I had imagination in spades, but I lacked the tools to use metaphor and deeper meaning, create musicality and poetic device, or write proper narratives with riveting beginnings, twisting middles, and, well, any ending at all. Those tools didn’t come until later, once I began to study writing in university. Before that, I moved away from writing for a time and pursued other vocations (actor, prime minister, and pastor, to name a few), so when I came back to studying writing, it was definitely much harder than before because I felt the pressure that comes with “finding your career”, and was determined to figure out how to make a living from the thing I loved (that’s what university is for after all- figuring out how to make money from an arts degree… yes?).

Now outside of class, I had no problem writing the soul-crushing-est of unrequited love poems, long meandering letters to friends I had met on my travels, silly plays and scripts for games or other celebrations, but that wasn’t “real” writing, right? In class, I was getting marked on my “real writing" by my teachers and getting critical feedback from my peers, and there was so much competition to submit to the school journal, and local magazines, and to talk big about being published one day; it was enough to give me writers block just walking onto campus (that and the amount of slack-lining shirtless "hippies"… thank you, University of Victoria).

When I finished my degree, I had no intention in continuing on with writing, since I had to get back to my real vocation as prime minister/actor, but I had a wonderful playwriting professor who encouraged me to apply to grad school in Toronto, and I got in, and that became a whole other two years of writing being a whole damn lot more difficult than when I was 10.

Now, when I wasn’t writing for zee graduates, I was penning sprawling diatribes on the meaning of life as a millennial in a giant city, and writing love poems to my new husband, and scathing plays on the ridiculousness of grad school rhetoric while procrastinating my final essays. But that wasn’t “real” writing, I told myself- the REAL writing was what I would do when I inevitably got a manuscript published, or a play produced, or a film made, and raked in hundreds of dollars (yes hundreds seemed like a whole lot at the time in my one-window, mouse-and-mold filled basement suite), right?? The problem was, I seemed to have a lot more trouble writing that “real” writing. It didn’t flow nearly as easily as the stream-of-consciousness diatribes, or as truly as the love poems, or as bitingly as the plays. So at the time, it truly did feel like writing would get harder and harder the older I got. More pressure. More opinions. More stakes. Less imagination. Less freedom. Less time. 

Now, on the brink of 30 and a couple years post-grad school, I’ve clearly figured it all out and am extremely mature and all my writing is done as easily as finishing a pan of brownies to myself. Also I write swaddled in fur whilst drinking champagne…. just kidding. It’s still really hard!! Definitely harder to begin writing and to tap into my imagination than when I was 10, but the difference is that I’ve started embracing the writing I do "on the side" as my real writing- the little poems, little paragraphs, little imaginings I pen in notebooks and napkins and my brain when I’m sitting in a waiting room at the dentist, or out for a cocktail with friends, or sleepily scribbling things down that rise to my mind as I fall asleep. Those writings come easily, without really thinking about them, and though I discounted them when I was younger as illegitimate writing, as I get older, I am beginning to accept these strange little writings as my best writing, my truest, and allowing them to teach me, and to blossom into other bigger things, or not- to stay small and hidden and lovely just on their own.

I'm also realizing that I don't have to try so hard to dig for "brilliant", "deep" material. Every year, simply by getting out of bed every (most) days, I'm gathering more and more images, experiences, and stories to me like those brownies gather around my love handles. I'm not even trying! I just wake up, go outside (or, like, leave my bed), and BOOM- another day gives me new images to mine from, new experiences to ponder, and new stories to unfold. It's like magic, I swear. All I have to do is keep my eyes open, grow older, and the world does the work for me.

Guys, if I’m figuring this out one week before turning 30, IMAGINE what I’ll know when I’m 40! Or 50! Or, oh my goodness, 90! I can’t wait to read my writing when I’m 90! I’m going to be so good! Is that weird/extremely conceited to say? I don’t care; I really do look forward to reading my own writing when I’m 90. I imagine I’ll have a million zillion more images and experiences to pull from, I (hopefully) won’t take myself so seriously, I’ll potentially be beyond the beginnings of a writing career and write more for love than for money, I expect not to give a f*** what my peers think of my writing, and my imagination will be as free as it was when I was 10, but with the addition of a life’s worth of writing knowledge, tools, and tricks up my (fabulous, preferably silk) sleeve and under my (is it too far to hope for Gucci?) belt.

All this to say, I’m still just beginning as a writer at age almost-30, but I’m already a better writer than I was at 10, and 20, and even 29, simply because I’ve lived more life. If you are reading this and you are in your 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, or 90s, and you’re thinking “it’s too late for me, I should have started earlier, I should have gone to school for writing, I don’t have anything to say now, who would care what I have to say?”, I want to jump out of the screen and say STOP THAT RIGHT NOW!!! Your voice is valuable, it has always been valuable, and it is actually growing in value with every year you live more of your life, and gather more images and experiences and insight. Do not let age stop you from writing. It is not reliant on schooling, or education, or grades. You’re not a football player- you don’t top out at 28 after so many concussions you start seeing two footballs thrown at you instead of one. You are a writer. You’re gathering more and more stories every day, every year, whether you’re aware of it or not, simply by gathering life. 

So please, next week, if you see me on the street (or, more likely, at any number of cocktail bars in the city), don’t tell me that 30 is the new 20. I do not want to be 20. At 20 I was insecure about my writing, trying to please too many people with it, unsure of my voice. I’m very happy to be a writer at 30. And looking forward every year to being an even better writer at 90.

As Frankenstein's ill-fated lover, Elizabeth, would say:
"Adieu! Take care of yourself; and, I entreat! write!"
Alexa 

Why Science Fiction Is The Only Genre That Can Truly Change The World

So this week I wrote a lot of sci-fi. Um, in case you didn’t know, “sci-fi” is this super technical insiders-only term for “science fiction”, otherwise known as the best genre of writing there is (yaaaw I said iiiit). Bet you pictured me sitting around reading lots of Jane Austen and- uh, like, Tess of the D’urbervilles or something, and secretly writing novels with lots of flowery words like ‘aristocracy’ and ‘plethora’, didn’t you? Well you, my anonymous friend, would be wrong. I’m a sci-fi nerd, and I have never written a novel in my life- I’m a playwright and screenwriter who specializes in receiving lots of ‘hmm, it's very "out-there"’, and ‘oddly quirky’ comments from my editors. Also, the other day my writing partner simply wrote me the constructive note “you’re insane” when I needed feedback on a sci-fi TV series we are currently writing together. This week I worked on said top-secret sci-fi series, and also wrote a quirky/insane little short film about a girl who thinks God is speaking to her about Y2K in the form of a cat. True stories, y’all. Well, the stories themselves aren’t true, obviously (I DID think God spoke to me about Y2K in the form of a cat, but that’s neither here nor there), but the fact is, though this website has lots of pinky purpley colours abounding (I find them calming, much like lavender diffusers), my writing tastes lean away from romance and history and more towards the weird, the out-there, the imaginative, the futuristic, and the magical. So, my secret’s out- I’m a self-professed sci-fi screenwriting nerd who loves aliens, post-apocalyptic worlds, and badass female leads. Now to be clear, this post is NOT a request to you romance writers out there to start adding aliens into your plots or something (though, now that I think about it, DO IT), but rather an open confessional about my personal writing tastes, and also a little bit about why I think contemporary storytellers should embrace more science fiction.

*Ahem*… Why Contemporary Storytellers Should Embrace More Science Fiction. By Alexa Gilker.

I meet with each of my workshop students at least once per workshop in a one-on-one setting so we can talk about their writing, why they write, and what writing knots they’re currently trying to untangle. Last week, one of my students somewhat sheepishly told me that they were working on a super cool premise (my words) for a science fiction novel set in the near distant future, and then they quickly went on to try to justify why they aren’t writing the next Jane-Austen-Tess-of-the-D’urbervilles historical novel*. I eventually cut them off with the reassurance that, though I do love Tess and think she would make a wicked futuristic heroine, I believe that science fiction is a misunderstood genre that actually has unlimited potential to tell big, bold, challenging stories that open up a larger dialogue about the world around us, perhaps with more possibilities for this than historical fiction or other similar reality-based genres. In other words- yaaaas, queen! No sheepishness necessary!

Now, hear me out. Science fiction, though often associated with Star Trek and nerds who speak their own made up language (it’s called PIG LATIN, you GUYS), is actually a blanket term for fiction based on “imagined future scientific or technological advances and major social or environmental changes”. Yeah, I bolded that last part myself for SPECIAL EFFECT (the magic is already happening!).

As the definition suggests, the magic of what science fiction allows us writers to do is, rather than write a boring yawny essay about climate change, for example (good topic- usually written in a boring and yawny way), a writer can imagine a world in which, say, climate change has already ravaged the earth, and we follow a heroine named Tess on her journey to help find another habitable planet. Without being preachy (because no one likes being preached at, no matter how true the sermon might be), a story like this could cause readers to think about what a world ravaged by climate change might look like, and they might see similarities to the state of our own world, and suddenly, by placing themselves in Tess’ place (cause we all imagine we’re the main characters, right? No one’s reading Harry Potter wishing they were Dudley), they might begin to see their own part in saving the world as it is now.

Through those "imagined future scientific or technological advances", science fiction allows writers to ask big questions, the “essential questions” as we all learned in grade 10 English (along with reading nothing but the book The Power of One and spending a lot of time outside in the winter hugging our classmates in order to learn "community"… oh wait- that was just MY hippie grade 10 teacher? Got it), which are the ones all humans are constantly asking themselves, like ‘who am I?’, ‘what is my purpose?’, and ‘what do I believe’?. However, rather than focusing on these questions in the past or present where we can be blinded by our current circumstances, science fiction allows us to jump to a whole other dimension, or world, or time in the future, where we are distracted by fascinating characters doing cool tech-y things, but who are usually also searching to understand those bigger questions about themselves and their crazy futuristic world- who am I, what is my purpose, what do I believe?

My favourite sci-fi stories are the ones that create worlds and situations that are so outrageous, they end up causing us to ask those essential questions about our world as it is NOW, so it doesn't end up like the insanity of the world in the story; in other words, sci-fi allows us to escape our world to a world that often looks a lot like ours but way worse (or better!) and then, when we put the book (or film!) down and come back to reality, it can encourage us to look at our own world from a new perspective.

Honestly, sometimes I wonder if someone had written a sci-fi novel twenty years ago imagining our world as it is right now, in 2017, if they’d ever have had the imagination to create the bizarreness of this time with all its reality-TV-stars-taking-over-every-sphere-of-the-world type weirdness? If they had** and we’d all read it, as strange and hilarious and bizarre and impossible as it might have seemed, might it also have caused us to think about our own time (back then, 1997 or, as I like to call it, “The Year God Spoke To Me About Y2K Through A Cat”), and the power we were giving celebrities over our culture, and if there were warning signs that this could potentially have pointed us in a dangerous direction if we weren’t careful?

Imagine if someone had written a sci-fi story about a futuristic heroine named Tess living in a post-apocalyptic world where reality TV stars run the government and certain people groups are banned from zoned areas and people kill other people because they don't understand them- now THAT would have been a crazy sci-fi story, huh? Imagine if we’d read it, seen the future, and done something to change the present back then? It’d almost be like sci-fi had the power to… did you see this coming?... change the world.

Agree? Disagree? Want to argue the case for why romance novels will change the world? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below!

As Frankenstein's ill-fated lover, Elizabeth, would say:
"Adieu! Take care of yourself; and, I entreat! write!"
Alexa

* I KNOW Jane Austen didn’t write Tess of the D’urbervilles but, like… she might as well have, amiright?
** Did someone write this book?? If so, please send me the title! I would LOVE to read it!

If Ever There Was A Time To Tell Your Story, It's NOW

I wanted to write something this week that was super fun and silly, since my last post was a bit more focused on the bigger picture, feeling feelings, all that, but I honestly don’t feel like I can! I don’t know how to leap into a bright and shiny headspace when I actually feel quite weighed down and burdened by everything that is going on in the world right now. As an artist (well, writer- please God don’t make me draw something), I wrote last week about how I often feel a ridiculous self-imposed responsibility to “change the world” with my art, but it feels like an even more daunting task than it did last week, if that’s possible.

What I’m struck by lately is how, in times like this, our instinct can somehow be to separate even further- to put labels and boxes around ourselves and others: liberal, conservative, democrat, republican, extremist, unbeliever, fascist, woman, etc. I admit I am pulled strongly on social media towards the people saying “enough is enough- it’s not a time for being wishy washy- stand up and show yourselves!”, and I want to, like, punch the air and be like- YES! LIBERAL CANADIAN WOMEN UNITE! But then I awkwardly lower my outstretched hand and think about members of my family who don’t hold those titles, or those beliefs, and I think- well, they’re not like other “conservatives” or “Americans” or “extremists". They’re the exception to the rule- the nice one, the one whose labels I can “overlook” because I know them, I know what they’ve been through in their lives, I know that their heart is good. Essentially, I know their story. And recently that’s been making me question whether or not my viewpoint would change towards EVERYONE who is feeling so “other” to me right now if I knew their story too. Not their “side’s” story- not the story of Republicans or of extremists or of angry men- but the story of each individual person who feels “other” to me. 

I happen to believe really deeply in the power of stories- my writing workshops, and specifically the Finding Your Voice workshops, are all about empowering and encouraging writers and non-writers (aka soon-to-be-writers-but-they-dont-know-it-yet) to tell their own story. In later workshops, we focus on fiction and characters and dialogue and all that good yummy storytelling stuff, but I really believe strongly that the most important place to start is learning how to tell our OWN story- who we are, the small memories and images and words that make up our lives- the things that set us apart uniquely from every other person on the planet. Lately, I’ve wondered what would happen if people from all sides of this great scary argument that is the world right now actually sat down and told each other their stories- not with the purpose to convert anyone to their side, not with the purpose to teach a lesson or shame the other, but with the sole goal of expressing what makes them unique, human, a being with a heart. 

I was telling one of my writing students recently that most antagonists in stories don’t know they are the antagonist. They think what they are doing is good, and they believe that generally they are a good person. The best antagonists are the ones we sort of sympathize with, the well-rounded ones we can see a bit of ourselves in. Similarly, I believe that 99% of humans actually set out to be good people during the day, though our actions can be interpreted as evil by others, and can even sometimes cause evil with or without our intention. Please understand, I fully understand that there are great intentional evil actions done as well. Taking the life of ANYONE, for ANY reason, is a truly evil act. But even the person who committed such an act- if they had the chance to tell their story before the anger and perhaps mental illness took over- if they had the chance to sit down and tell someone or write down what they had experienced in their life- the bad, but also the good, the lovely, the animals they loved, the leaf they once pressed in their grandfather’s old book, the moment they knew they were first in love- would that person have perhaps felt understood, and able to communicate? And what if- what IF- they had the chance to hear the story of one of the people they believed they hated- what if they sat down and heard or read the story of someone they believed was so “other” and so beyond understanding, but found themselves drawn to and relating to and intrigued by that person's memories of the birthday parties they had as a child, the first time they pet a horse’s nose, that one time a snow cave became their spaceship, and, yes, the moment they knew they were first in love? Would this person who had felt such hate before been able to say, maybe not about everyone they felt hatred towards, but maybe to this one person- you are the exception to the rule, the nice one, the one whose labels I can overlook because I know you, I know that your heart is good. And maybe if they heard one more story of someone else, and one more, perhaps these people would stop being the exception to the rule for them, and perhaps the label that so scared them would not be scary anymore, and perhaps even they would find love replaced hate. 

I’m not trying to say that if we all hold hands and sing kumbaya and dance around the fire together that the world would change overnight. Actually, I take that back. If that really happened, I bet the world WOULD change overnight. But there’s the problem of getting everyone in the same forest, and making sure everyone knows the words to kumbaya, and getting a fire that big lit, yada yada. Logistics, amiright? But what I AM trying to say is that I’m realizing how important it is to listen to one another. Listen. Listen to each other's stories. Ask what someone's story is. Labels are safe places for us to hide and belong, and easy things to group others into and declare them “evil”, but I think they might be stopping us right now from listening. And if you’re lucky, someone from the other “side” might even ask you to tell your story, and OH! I hope they do. In the meantime, you should start telling it. Tell it to everyone you know. Write it down. Don't worry about the punctuation, spelling, how "publishable" it is, what people will think. Just TELL IT. Not just the bad parts, but also the good parts. The time you made lemonade in Greece with your sisters while you waited for your college crush to show up, how as a child you collected stick-on earrings unpeeled from their backs in a tiny glass box, and how when you close your eyes you can still smell the piney scent of sweet bouquets of moss collected in Canmore every weekend. Maybe someone who had written you off because of the label they gave you (or you gave yourself) might read it, or hear it. Maybe they’ll be surprised that they relate, or they empathize, or they are just purely entertained by you. Maybe you’ll become the exception to the rule for them. And then maybe, if they hear enough stories, they won’t have a “rule” about a certain group of people at all. And maybe…. I’m nervous to even say it…. but here it goes… maybe telling stories could save our lives? 

What Matters, Then?

I spent most of yesterday sitting in a coffee shop writing and giggling and stuffing my face with the 100 calorie no-butter bag of popcorn that Starbucks sells as their “healthy” option, but then it really just gave me a craving for popcorn, so I went home and made a big pot with lots of butter on it and probably 500 more calories and ate that instead of dinner…. which is…. not what I started out trying to say but I got really caught up in remembering that popcorn and the slippery slope Starbucks led me on. I’m also a firm believer in day-old popcorn. Yes you heard me- popcorn that sat out overnight (sure- in the fridge, if that makes you feel better) and the next day has that perfect cold salty leftover butter taste. I know how “leftover butter” sounds but sue me, okay, I like it. And now I can’t remember what I was talking about… oh yes- giggling in Starbucks.

I was giggling because right now I’m writing a comedy- a long form web series- with my writing partner** but I have to admit that I actually feel quite guilty to be working on a comedy in 2016/2017; with the overabundance of refugee crises, civil wars, oil protests, high unemployment, mass gun incidents, hate crimes- how could I possibly sit and write something as inconsequential as a comedy? I know the point of comedy is often to make us laugh and help us take our minds off of so much tragedy, but I’m usually of the mindset that in my privileged state, I don’t really deserve to have my mind “taken off” the world’s problems- shouldn’t I, a middle class white woman with two degrees that my parents significantly helped pay for, have a responsibility to keep my mind firmly turned ON so I can acknowledge and filter and have compassion for all the hurt in the world? I think so. As a writer especially, I do feel a substantial obligation to have my eyes wide open- to see injustice and write about it to bring awareness to it- to point out where I see places where our world is broken so that perhaps someone with the right resources or connections, or even myself, is inspired to help fix those areas. All of this makes writing a silly comedy feel, well, silly, and the rest of my writing that is “supposed to” have a social conscience feel incredibly overwhelming. It’s moments like these when, in order not to become completely paralyzed with fear and stop writing altogether, I have to bring myself back to basics, which starts with acknowledging that I am one writer, one person, and a bit of humility might be in order to remind myself that I can’t change the world on my own, nor do I have the power to (yes, yes, be the change you hope to see in the world, I know, but I myself am still a very small, relatively insignificant cog in the wheel and I’m quite painfully aware of that).

 And so, the writing prompt* that I sent out to my lovely (I’m assuming- I haven’t actually met most of you but I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt) subscribers this week was part of my own self-centering- an attempt to ask myself, as a writer, when the world can feel in turmoil, and I have the privilege of wielding a pen to talk about it- WHAT MATTERS?.... What really matters? Where should my attention be? What do I focus on? What stories should I tell? I’m inspired by a section of a book-length poem called Red Creek: A Requiem by brilliant and controversial poet, Margaret Robison (yes, you’ve heard that name before- Annette Bening played her, albeit quite neurotically and not in a great light, in the semi-biographical film Running With Scissors). This one very small section of the poem (made up of images from a small town in Georgia) goes like this:

What matters, then?
Poetry matters, and the line
that will not break
under the weight of history.
What matters, then?
A single gardenia broken
from the dark-leafed bush.
What matters, then?
The dark-leafed bush.
What matters, then?
The gardenia.

What I love about this section of the poem is how Robison narrows in, gradually, on one single image. She starts with largely abstract concepts: poetry, history, weight, which can be difficult for a reader (or writer!) to connect to. Instead of letting herself stop there (which I am tempted to do in my writing so often: “what matters is world peace! Happiness! An end to poverty!”), which perhaps would have left the reader nodding their head in grave agreement but then nervously moving on to something more palatable, she pushes herself to look closer- look harder. She finds one image to focus on- one thing that, I imagine, she could look out her window and know for sure was true, was real. And then, once she puts it on paper, she forces herself to look even harder- what, of the single broken gardenia in the bush, matters? Is it the bush- the thing that grows the flower, the thing that sustains it? No, she decides, it’s the flower itself. Notice she leaves out the descriptive word, “broken” in the final line. She doesn’t place that judgement, that tragedy on it. She just lets it be, lets it stand to be what it is. She gives it a place. She gives it acknowledgement. She does not let her heart bleed for it, does not try to fix it, does not try to solve it. She just narrows her focus-- what matters? what matters now? look further- don’t stop here- find the grain of truth- find the thing you can really say is true—until she finds the thing. I don’t mean to say that this poem proves the only thing that matters is flowers, or beauty, or anything like that- that would undo the very thing Robison set out to do, I think, which is to swipe away the abstract like cobwebs- push past those theoretical concepts (resources, sexuality, power) that end up leading us to war, to hate, to ignorance, to separation- so we can see beyond them to the single truths we can agree on. Maybe you think I’m reading into this too much… I promise you I’m no “find the hidden meaning” English student; my degrees are in creative writing and, contrary to popular belief, we didn’t have to read or analyze anything- we were a bunch of dreamers secretly reading a lot of Harry Potter and Grimms’ fairytales.

But my point is, sometimes as writers, when we are overwhelmed, when we feel a responsibility to write about something that feels “important”, when we don’t know where to start: one place to begin is to ask yourself: what matters, then? And this is not a static answer- it can change from day to day, or even moment to moment. For example, right now even as I write this I can look out the window in my tiny cold top-floor office and see snow piled and dripping off the highest bough of an evergreen tree. The way it’s piled- like a solid thing, a down pillow thrown up in the tree. The way it’s melting- from inside itself, the edges first, like sucking the juice out of a slurpee until only the ice is left.

What matters, then?
The harsh ice left unthawed
in the crevices of the pine needles
far into the much longed-for spring.
What matters, then?
The harsh ice unthawed.
But what matters, THEN?
The spring.

As Frankenstein's ill-fated lover, Elizabeth, would say:
"Adieu! Take care of yourself; and, I entreat! write!"
Alexa

* Each Saturday morning I send out a 10-minute writing prompt to those writers and creatives who want a little burst of inspiration to jumpstart storytelling. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the goodness and join the party!

**Yes, I have a permanent professional writing partner- his name is Todd and he lives in LA and our agent pitches us as a writing/directing duo and we literally could not be more different as people but we seem to share the same brain when it comes to writing… I’m not sure this really was necessary to put in a footnote, but I just felt you should know about Todd. He’s a nice guy. Everyone needs a nice guy named Todd in their lives.

Making Lemonade In Greece

This piece of writing done by yours truly came from one of the weekly writing prompts I send out to my subscribers (click here to sign up if you haven't yet!); I tried the exercise myself first and was kind of surprised at how well it worked to help me write about a memory I had previously been unsure how to approach. I decided to post it, even though it's definitely just a rough copy with very little editing done (that's my nervous disclaimer), just to give an example of what I hope these prompts do for you: open up memories and stories that are already inside of you and give you a way into writing them. This piece isn't perfect and isn't even necessarily a fully formed idea yet, but the goal of these exercises (both the writing prompts in the course and in the weekly email) is to help fight past all the excuses in our brains telling us we aren't ready to write, or don't know how, or don't have an ending, or know where to start, or have enough time, yada yada, and just WRITE already. If you're wondering what the exercise was, sign up to receive weekly writing prompts and you'll receive a little email from me every Saturday morning!

MAKING LEMONADE IN GREECE

When you held them in your hand- so bright, unnatural as space- little yellow bellies like small creatures, pursed lips on either end- skin bright as acid or something that burns going down.
 
We were so tanned and so giddy- having just fled the street bombs in Athens to an absurdly obscure island off the coast of Greece where my college crush was rumoured to be. We were unbombed and unleashed. He wasn't there yet, at least I hadn't seen him, and while I kept one eye on the shoreline for his boat I kept the other on you both- I was self-conscious then, you two so thin and brown and your hair so long. I made up for it with acid pink lipstick and a loud mouth.

He was the tiniest old wrinkled man living in that dark house at the bottom of the hill- he let us use his salt and pepper those first days and after that all the lemons we wanted from the lemon trees. We literally made lemonade- the tiny iron porch- hair swathed- blue sundresses- do you remember what it tasted like? I do not- only the puckering bitterness of the flesh before it was sugared, only the waxy pith on my tongue. Did we even fill a pitcher? We must have. Where we got the sugar I don't know. Perhaps down by the docks with the old men playing cards and drinking the soot black espresso. It was there I first saw him finally arrived- he walked by on the stone shore and didn't recognize me at first- why would he? Halfway across the world I'd come to see him, dark and strong. The lemons were a distraction- a way to pass the time until he showed up with his motor bike and- what else?- a girlfriend he'd found on the boat- hair bright as sun.

The lemonade- I remember here- squinted our faces up before we added the sugar- we had no idea how much sugar it actually took to really cut the bite of their flesh- cups and cups of it- so much strength in those small globes- you could hold them bright in your hand and not know the power inside- how they could make a grown man cry, how innocent they looked before resting on a tongue. 

As Frankenstein's ill-fated lover, Elizabeth, would say:
"Adieu! Take care of yourself; and, I entreat! write!"
Alexa

My Voice Ain't Lost- Why Do I Gotta 'Find' It?

No, you haven't lost it, obviously. I mean unless you've got that sexy, raspy, Scarlett Johansson half-voice thing going on, most of us can physically speak loud enough to be heard in a crowd. We can ask for more room in our coffee or for a bus transfer. And those of us who know how to write are writing words, most likely, and we are forming sentences and phrases and occasionally full paragraphs (though that's becoming more rare by the day). So then what is this 'finding your voice' business I'm purporting through these workshops, blogs, and endless adorable instagram posts??

Truth be told, there isn't really one simple answer, but perhaps it would help if I explain a little bit of how and why I came to have a passion (and I truly do- a deep, abiding passion) to facilitate writers and not-yet-writers in 'finding their voice'. Bare with me, I'm going to be a little bit vulnerable, but I hope it's to a good end. 

I grew up in a truly fab home- both my parents were super encouraging of myself and my two sisters- we played all the sports, took all the choirs and bands and drama classes, pretty much tried anything our little hearts desired and were validated no matter our skill level. I know. I recognize how extremely fortunate I was and how this really discredits the brooding, eternally shoulder-chipped writer image you may have had of me (um- have you checked my 'About' page? I'm a grinning blonde lady wearing lace- about as unbrooding as they come). But when I got a bit older, I found myself in a position within a group of male friends where it became very clear to me that my voice as a young woman was not only not valued, it was downright mocked. Yes, the young men I hung around with were probably just insecure, developing teenagers like myself (this was the height of the ‘emo’ stage- lots of side-swept bangs and black hoodies), but somehow I became the brunt of all the jokes focused on making me feel small, "know my place", and my dreams of being the Prime Minister, or a missionary (yep- those were the two dreams...) were laughed at, and it was pointed out that these were not places where a woman was allowed to lead, or speak. I experienced my whole teenage life like this- feeling overwhelmed by the realization that I would need to fight desperately if I ever wanted my voice to be heard. 

Flash forward to my late teenage years and early 20s, and the travel bug took me to a bunch of rad places around the world, including central Mexico, Costa Rica, Albania, Greece, Morocco, and India. Throughout my travels, I began to see extreme poverty firsthand for the first time in my life, and felt ashamed about my fears of never having a voice; compared to many of the marginalized people I encountered and spent time with- the very poor in the slums of Mexico, the travelling Roma in Greece, the orphans and battered women in a shelter in India, my voice could be heard loud and clear. I saw that not having a voice could mean more than simply not being given a chance to be CEO, but could mean not having access to food or clean water, having your ancestral land stolen, losing your life. I saw that not having a voice didn't mean that one didn't have opinions or intelligence or thoughts, but that it meant the people in power would not listen to or validate them. 

Finally, in the second half of my 20s I found myself teaching at a college in Toronto for a couple years, specifically a remedial writing class to students that were failing at writing so badly they would flunk out if they didn't pass my class. I was their last hope at finishing their education (an intimidating fact causing me to drink waaay too much coffee and then take ten pee breaks each lesson).  Now Toronto is a magical city that is full of people from every ethnic background around the world, often mixed backgrounds in one family. For example, I had a student who had grown up in Toronto, but their mother was Chinese and spoke a mixture of “broken” English and Cantonese, and their father was from Jamaica and spoke English, though it was Patois English, which is almost its own lovely, fascinating language in itself. This student could barely string together a sentence that would be deemed acceptable in "academic English", as we were taught to call it at the college, but I found that his language was far more interesting than any I'd ever heard- made up of an intoxicating mix of Cantonese translation, Patois slang, phrases from his Vaughn high school, and many other bits and pieces cobbled together from 21st century techno-pop culture. This wasn't just this one student- every one of the students in my remedial English class had this trait- a completely unique language inherited from a diverse childhood. I found myself day after day in that classroom struggling to teach “proper” English, because one thought kept ringing through my mind: who the heck was I to strip away their fascinating original language and force them all to sound the same?? We don't need more people that all sound alike! We need diversity, new perspectives, eclectic language to describe unique experiences! What I realized through these students was that 'voice' was more important than learning proper syntax, grammar, compound sentences, blah blah blah- (yes, I know we do need some ability to communicate in a common language in order to get our opinions, thoughts, and ideas across, but if it's at the loss of our own unique voices, I caution this immediate preference for the former). I came to believe that their own original, unique voices would make them far better at standing out in a crowd later on in life when it came time to communicate their viewpoint- whether for creative writing, business, sales, politics, or whatever sphere they found themselves in. 'Finding their voice', therefore, had less to do with finding something that was gone, then helping them discover the treasure they already had. 

SO- if you have stuck with me thus far, thank you for your patience, and I'll try to wrap this up for you. Whitespace Writers was born out of my belief that everyone, every person, in any circumstance, should be given the dignity of a voice- meaning we should, in all spheres of life, be prepared to listen to the story, the experience, the individual knowledge that is inside of every person, regardless of their gender, economic status, or place of power. Through the telling of our own story, we help fill another gap in the human experience and do all sorts of healing, teaching, growing, and unifying. But the problem is that many of us A) don’t know how to tell our story, B) think our own story, whether real or imagined, is boring, and C) focus most of our time on trying to sound like everyone else! However, I for one don’t want my Chinese Jamaican Canadian student to sound like everyone else; the reason I’m so fascinated and willing to learn from their story is BECAUSE it isn’t like anyone else’s- it is uniquely theirs. Through the ‘Finding Your Voice’ workshops, then, my goal has become to give an opportunity to people like my former students, people like the marginalized I encountered overseas, people like the little girl I was, fighting for my voice- to discover what their own original, unique voice and story sounds like. My passion is to help you discover not how to sound like everyone else, but how to sound more and more like yourself, and thus assist you in standing out from the crowd so that your story can be heard, and all the life-transforming things can happen that are bound to happen when we speak up and tell the truth of our experiences.

That is why I want to invite you to consider ‘finding your voice’ again- not because it’s lost or because you never had one, but because it is so strong, distinct, and deeply engrained in you that sometimes we are the ones who have the hardest time knowing and believing our own original authentic voice is interesting, unique, and holds immeasurable value. Like when you hear your own voice played back to you on a recorder- none of us can believe that’s what our voice sounds like- but to everyone else it could only ever be you. I want to help you find that voice, learn to recognize it, strengthen it, and use it to change the world.  

As Frankenstein's ill-fated lover, Elizabeth, would say:
"Adieu! Take care of yourself; and, I entreat you! write!"
Alexa

Please Don't Make Me Write This Month

I honest-to-God don't feel like writing today. Or, really, any day this month, for that matter. I'd be happy to take the month of December off, starting in mid-November and ending some time in February when I start getting nervous that I'll have no projects to work on by the time the snow melts and my fear-motivation kicks in. 

It's that time of year when literally anything else will take my concentration away- embarking on an exciting journey of making wreaths for everyone and making it through half of one before getting distracted by reading magazine articles about making wreaths, or baking cookies for all the Christmas guests I'm planning to have and then "rationing" them to myself for the next two weeks until they're gone and I frantically buy five bags of Chicago Mix at Superstore on Christmas Eve... you get the idea. It's almost impossible for me to sit down and actually put pen to paper. 

I'm also sick, which happens to me inevitably at this time of year as my current writing projects start to slow down and my body suddenly realizes we won't go broke if I take a few days off and so it hastily takes the opportunity to shut down and do some sort of inner renovations that put me on the couch for a week and steal my tastebuds just as I'm finally about to let myself pour gravy on everything for every meal for like a week. 

All this to say, I'm honestly not in the mood to write. I don't feel like trying to think about language, about how it moves and paces and breathes across a page with a life of its own, and how I can agonize over one word at a time and suddenly feel like I've cracked some sort of code into the universe when I get it right. I don't feel particularly up to layering metaphors, to letting the silk of one word drape lusciously over the breast of another word as the friction between the two softens into some sort of new thing altogether, and I certainly don't feel up to describing shit and letting the truth of it emerge and flicker and grow from its own wick like the blue flame of a young candle. 

What I want is to drink NeoCitran and also eat an almond poppy seed sugar cookie and feel good about them cancelling each other out. What I want is to pass on my favourite book, A Complicated Kindness, to my sister-in-law and basically know I'm reading vicariously through her reading, and can instead watch funny videos of pandas and still feel cultured. What I want is for someone to wake me up after December and show me the piles of writing I did in my sleep- brilliant, metaphor-filled, truth-seeking writing. 

In these moments, I give myself a little break. I do. Are you surprised by that conclusion? This is not a piece about forging through and putting your head down and doing the work even if it kills you, yadda yadda. This is a piece saying sometimes we need to listen to our bodies and minds and walk away from the screens and notepads and go live our lives (aka tromp out in -34 to the deep snowy country and saw down a tinkly Charlie Brown tree to decorate, then call Christmas a success and not leave the house for a week) until we feel up for storytelling again.

In the meantime, what I'm sure you'll be surprised to find is that at the end of that little sabbatical, you'll actually have written 24 mostly-sincere Christmas cards, 14 well-intentioned to-do lists (not eat "all the damn cookies" isn't really a 'to-do', but we'll look the other way), 5-7 grocery lists, at least 3 gift lists (the first that includes everyone, the second where you say 'screw it' and cut everyone out except your partner and cat, and the third where you have a bourbon and graciously put everyone back in), a handful of heartfelt and a few somewhat sarcastic emails, and maybe even an inspired inscription or two on the inside of a literary gift. That's a lot of words being sent out into the universe! That's a lot of practice that you didn't even realize you were doing- on tone, on condensing language, on strong images, on finding your own voice. So pat yourself on the back and pour yourself a second NeoCitran, 'cause this party's gonna be off the hook now you realize you're a full-fledged hard-core writer who didn't take even a single day off even during the holiday. You're legit, son. Merry Christmas, you badass round-the-clock writer, you. If only your summer-writing self could be so productive.

As Frankenstein's ill-fated lover, Elizabeth, would say:
"Adieu! Take care of yourself; and, I entreat you! write!"
Alexa