Wednesday, August 29, 2012


This year, I've been showing photos that I used in the calendar I make for my family every year. You can find the previous months, along with a link to the text that they illustrated this year, here.

August is the month I most closely associate with being here. We couldn't vacation before August -- my parents taught summer sessions; the competitive swimming season didn't go on hiatus until the end of July. August gave us a few short weeks of freedom before school started again, for all of us.

I try to keep these familial biorhythms in mind as I make this calendar every year. Sure, my siblings and I are all (ostensibly) adults and have been creating our own families and vacation traditions for decades. But I suspect that August  in Thunder Bay is a default setting for them -- it is for me.

And here's the view that I most closely associate with August. It's one of my default shots. I take about a bazillion pictures from this beach at all times of the year, every year, saying each time, "I can't believe I'm taking another picture at this same spot."

Even though I live here, I can still feel a frisson of "vacation!" when I see this view. Ahhhh.
Friday, August 24, 2012

Lingo: A Patterned Dish Story

Don't you love the English language?

I've written before about my devotion to reruns of high-art TV like America's Next Top Model. I have recently discovered Canadian home style icon Sarah Richardson and her "design sidekick," Tommy Smythe. You can watch reruns of Sarah's House at this link.

I find the show immensely entertaining, even beyond its content. Sarah and Tommy are funny. The show isn't a competition, so the half-hours don't include catfight scenes. Clients, tradespeople, and others on the show don't always agree, but they remain respectful and get a job done. They also work in the "real world," with actual concrete items (which I talked about briefly in relation to my summer, here).

Plus, the language!

All specialists use language in specific ways. Scientists, politicians, MBAs, therapists, lawyers -- and yes, artists, writers, and designers. My sister often emails phrases from clothing design shows, like Project Runway: "I'm giving her a sleeve," for example. (As Tim Gunn responded, "Just one?")

But rarely do they have this much fun. Sarah, after thwarted in the purchase of a patterned fabric, once decided to look for a wallpaper that "tells the same story." The patterned dish story was in the context of a dining room that, to Tommy, already had a lot of pattern: "I'm all for a patterned dish story, but by the time we get to the table, might we not need a bit of a rest?" 

And "story" isn't their only interesting use of language. Sarah and Tommy also talk about creating "vignettes" and "moments." And in response to Tommy's concerned about the the china pattern, Sarah showed him how placing the patterned china on a "biscuit-coloured" plate created a restful and beautiful border. I would have called it "white" or possibly "cream" but okay, "biscuit" it is. 

Oh, just go watch a few episodes. It's fun! Just as language should be.

And P.S.: what lingo would my characters use, given their experience and special knowledge?
Wednesday, August 15, 2012


One of my favo(u)rite aspects of summer is working outdoors. No, I don't take my computer outside -- I do (some) outdoor work in what is commonly known as "the real world."

I also go outdoors in winter, but it's more often related to play. My husband does the shoveling and snow-blowing. So when I'm out, it's to go skiing or sledding, to take pictures, or for some other recreative purpose. Like doing nothing.

The summer is different. Waaaay different.

In the summer, we maintain structures, mow grass, deal with trees. (In the winter, we clear downed trees off the driveway, but otherwise, they stay where they are until the snow melts, the sap runs, and we deal with them. Or not.) And by "maintaining structures," I mean -- well, a lot of things. Painting, cleaning, clearing, re-roofing, draining. Lots of verbs.

My point is that unless it's raining, there's always something "productive" to be done outdoors in the summer. And I always remember physical sensations that have faded during the indoor months.

This summer, we've been painting the outside of one of our camps (southern Ontario: cottage, Manitoba: cabin). I've become aware of a host of physical sensations I've forgotten in the ten years since the last paint job. For example: The hand holding the can of paint (even a small can) gets really tired and my thumb goes to sleep. I tend to hold my breath while painting. Painting is a way to do squats while accomplishing something. When I paint, I don't use all the strength in my arm (painting requires a surprising amount of finesse, even when you're coating a wall), so part of what makes me tired is the sensation of holding back. Et cetera.

Other tasks have other moments. You learn a lot about a stretch of grass while mowing it -- walking every inch of it, over and over again. Taking a shop-vac to the rafters of an attic built by your grandfather can connect you to your past in a whole new way -- if your shoulders hurt just from vacuuming, what must his have felt like from lifting and hammering? When I load fireplace lengths into a wheelbarrow to bring back to the splitter in the garage, I'm reminded how solid, how heavy wood is.

I want to remember these sensations when my life turns back inward, as it inevitably will, this winter. In a month or so, I'll re-enter a project in which people work outdoors. The physical fatigue that comes from sawing, splitting, and stacking wood is different from the fatigue of prepping for a class or analyzing story structure. If I can just remember that, really remember it, I have a better chance of getting it onto the page, where a reader can imagine it, too.
Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Yes! That One!

This year, I've been showing images from the 2012 calendar I make for my family for Christmas. A link to previous months (that also includes a link to the text I illustrated) is here.

When I put together a calendar, I start by making a folder in Picasa with candidate images. I try to mix winter and summer shots; I try to find pictures that are different from those available in commercial calendars. And of course, because my audience is my family, who experienced this place in the summer and have warm feelings for particular scenes and views, I include a fair number of those.

Sometimes I have text first; sometimes I find it later. I have a couple of candidates for 2013 already, but I'm always on the lookout.

After I have the file of images and the text, I set aside uninterrupted time to read the text while looking through the assembled photos -- usually at least double the number that I can possibly use -- to see what speaks.

When I got to July, I knew immediately the image I would use. The text: "...and we say, I am who I am because I have been there."

The image:

Knew. Immediately. I don't know what it is about this heron, but I saw it and thought, "Yes! That one!"

And because I'm the kind of person who can't let an experience just HAPPEN, without any PONDERING (after all, I am who I am because I have been here), I've wondered if there's a way to use that sense of recognition in writing. For example: if I look at pictures "as" a character, what could I learn about the character? Or the plot, for that matter?

Images: an under-utilized tool.
Wednesday, August 1, 2012

What's a Meta-Phor?

Last week I mentioned activities that don't show results until they do. Namely, rowing.

I've spent more time in a rowboat in the past couple of weeks than in the previous 12 months. Rowing is a lovely activity that engages body and spirit, while leaving the mind room to play. Ergo, I've had plenty of time to consider nautical metaphors.

Like: Ships are safe in a harbor, but that's not what ships are built for. Before your ship can come in, you have to send it out. Rowers are natural historians, because they always look at where they've been; canoers (or kayakers) are natural explorers, because they always look at where they're going.

But mostly I've been thinking about the point in a long project when I despair of ever seeing progress. In the boat, it's the spot when I'm rowing out toward an island in the bay (a convenient destination for the family since 1925), and suddenly I hit a hole in the space-time continuum and ... stop ... moving.

Oh, I'm still rowing. If I look down, I can see little whirlpools where I've put oars into the water and pulled the boat along for a few feet. I'm still making whirlpools in different spots, all of which head in the right direction. But nothing else changes visibly: not my island destination; not my embarkation point, back there on the beach; nothing on any horizon. It's a moment made for existential despair.

Until suddenly, as I keep rowing, things DO change. I get visibly closer to the island. The beach I left recedes. Eventually I arrive (though the island is now a bird sanctuary, so I don't get out of the boat). If I'm lucky, I see otters at play.

But if I stopped at that point of despair, I would never get there. As long as I keep rowing, I'm bound to get somewhere.

Which of course returns to writing -- specifically, my difficulty producing coherent large manuscripts. I'm taking a lesson from my rowing experience, though. I'm in the middle of the story. In some ways, I know what is going to happen, but mostly, my job is to keep showing up at the page and nudging the story along. If I stop writing, I'll never get to the island.

It's an imperfect metaphor -- for one thing, otters also come into our bay periodically -- but hey, it speaks to me now. Besides, a metaphor isn't supposed to be a perfect representation of a thing. It's an image of a thing that is somehow similar to a thing. And sometimes, to answer the question in the title of this post, it inspires thought.

Don't despair. It's only August. There's still plenty of time to make progress this summer. Find a metaphor and let it carry you out to where the otters play.