Freewheeling Inspiration (And Finishing What You Start)

It’s the best feeling in the world, being inspired, I say.

These past few months have been a particularly fertile time, with ideas cartwheeling out of my brain almost faster than I can catch them. At the same time, I’ve been trying to finish a number of pieces I’ve started. The more time I spend hashing out new ideas, the more neglectful I feel about the stories that still want to become what they’re supposed to be and just need a little more time and care.

Yesterday I read a really comforting and encouraging blog post from one of my new favourite writers, Sarah Selecky (author of the gorgeous collection of short stories, “This Cake Is For The Party”) about those abandoned stories that are waiting for you to come back to them.

She writes:

When you come to a story after time away, ask yourself: where can I find the truth in this story now?

An interesting question for a writer of creative non-fiction. After all, we’re supposed to be telling the truth, from our perspective, all the time with every line.

But her advice spoke to me. From a distance the truth can look different. We can uncover new facets, or dig deeper and touch the stuff we weren’t ready to see before. Our experiences have so much to offer us — so much to offer whatever it is we must write. I believe it’s true that finding the energy, be it a new angle, a new form, a different genre or approach to the material, may be all we need to turn our tired but patient work into something that lives and breathes — and is ready for the world.

I also like to believe that no writing is wasted; from an abandoned piece we can lift at least one or two great lines, stunning images, or at least know that pivotal moment that makes the experience matter in the long narrative we tell ourselves about our lives. That thing we all do to make some kind of sense of our experiences, and maybe our very existence.

As Sarah explains: If you try to go back and write the story according to what you thought it was before, you will miss what the story has to offer you right now. And if you abandon it because you feel like you don’t know it anymore, you will also miss what the story has to offer you right now.

While I don’t want to miss any of the ideas that are trying to climb up and out (all toward the completion of a book idea I’m working on), what is new and wonderfully welcome is this excitement about what those old poems and stories have to offer me — and I, them… my fresh truth — now.


Time Travel Is Lonely

nicolewriting11.jpgSince March I’ve been trying to get a grasp on writing in a very new genre for me. For years I wrote poetry because I was drawn to a form I could get in and out of quickly. By nature I’m impatient, and once I became a mom (nearly 8 years ago now!) poetry was the most practical option.

But ever since I read Barbara Kingsolver’s “High Tide In Tucson” in 1999 I knew the personal essay was the form I was made for. Telling stories, personal stories, based on my life experience, was what inspired me to write poetry in the first place. Timing is everything, and over the past few years I’ve been biding my time, knowing the moment would arrive when I’d finally take a swan dive into creative non-fiction.

This summer I took a ten week online course on the Lyric Essay — a kind of hybrid form which I’ve come to think of as the place where poetry and the personal essay meet. Over ten weeks I drafted ten essays. Nowhere near enough experience to claim mastery over the form. But I’ve been able to tell some of the stories I’ve been dying to tell in a more expansive form. And I’ve learned some things about storytelling, and also, the human heart.

I’m not the first person to say that we all have stories to tell. But what was a major discovery for me was just how many. I’ve carried around with me a few stories that I thought of as the major ones — the ones I use to trace some loose narrative arc over my life, and draw some kind of meaning from.

Once I pushed past the major stories I’d been saving up, there were  more stories. Interesting stories! And then there were more. Now I know I will never run out of stories. There’s no way we can ever exhaust them all. The experience of digging deep, back in time, can itself be exhausting, though.

Creative non-fiction, my friends, is not for the faint of heart. In travelling back through time, reading old diaries, listing to music from other eras, revisiting photos of different “me’s” over the past four decades, I found myself sleepwalking through my life until the story was done. My heart was scraped raw with trying to dig out the honest story, the true feelings, the real impact. But I always came back so much wiser, with the gift of the long view to make sense of things.

One more thing I learned in all this time travel. The heart is strong, and very, very resilient. Way more resilient than any of us may think. Every stop I made back in time was at a point of heartbreak. Love and loss are where the power lie for me. And those stories are the ones that intrigue me and always have the most to teach me. As strong and resilient the heart is, I will admit that as I relived old times I felt immersed in a lingering malaise which only let up once I felt the story was done.

Some stories took a long time to get there; one took six months. For six months I wandered around thinking of the person I missed, wishing I could be the girl I was then with the guy he was then. And then the story was finished. The feelings dissipated and were replaced with a feeling of peace. The story made sense. It was right to have ended where it did. Writing it, and only writing it, helped me see that.

The story I just finished writing — a lyric essay in the form of a screenplay — is the most heartbreaking story I have to tell. It took me 24 years to approach it, and four or five attempts before I even hit on the right form. I’m still in it, but I’m looking forward to the peace that will come when I can finally call it done and let it go. Writing it was painful. I felt real sorrow and resisted writing the ending until I felt strong enough to do it, with a lot of encouragement from my instructor (the wonderful Gretchen Clark). But completing it gave me back something invaluable — someone I lost. It was worth revisiting the heartache so boldly.

I can’t wait to do it again.

Where In The World Is Randy Gould? (A Bit About Me And Music)

Randy Gould

A story about music and musician, Randy Gould

When I was a teenager, nothing mattered more to me than music. It was almost like a physical place I lived in. Music was all-encompassing, resonating inside me, both creating and following my shifting moods.  It provided a kind of solace away from the real world while reinforcing my own private reality. I listened to music all the time, from the moment I woke up in the morning and was getting ready for school, to the second I burst into the door when I got home. I still have a crazy passion for music and suspect I always will.

As a teenager and in my 20s I was probably pretty annoying about music. Not because I was obnoxious about my snobby taste in bands. I was never an early adopter (or early dismisser) of whatever was cool. I was often, in fact, a late adopter. My musical tastes typically reflected those of people at least ten years older than me. I was the odd girl rocking out to “Lunatic Fringe” in my bedroom while everyone else was lining up to watch “Rattle and Hum” at the theatre. And even though I loved Ann and Nancy Wilson I firmly believed (and still do) that Karen Carpenter was the best female singer who ever lived. I was also inclined toward classical music thanks to an enthusiastic grade 4 teacher who inspired me to borrow “Hooked On Classics” records from the library. I stayed out of most musical conversations at school and on the bus because I was — let’s face it — pretty nerdy about music.

But it wasn’t because of my out of step tastes that I was annoying. It was because I was so completely dazzled and subsumed by music, to the point of distraction. In the same way that I can’t hear people talking to me when I’m reading, I have trouble pulling away from the experience of listening to a song I love. I remember when I finally had my own car and could listen to whatever I wanted to while driving that my trances interfered with socializing with others. In my teens there were bitter arguments over what to play in the car when riding anywhere with my family. It got down to a kind of mental arm-wrestling. The winner had to have the best argument and my brother was really good at it. Why should we listen to Pearl Jam in the car on the way Christmas dinner, asked my frustrated, religious, Christmas carol-loving Mom? Because what does Auntie Alma wear every Christmas? Pearls. And what does Auntie Gina give us every year? Homemade jam. In spite of my mom’s protests, we listened, briefly, to “10”. Jim Reeves and the Christmas polka had to wait.

But I digress. The one exception to my completely out of step old soul musical tastes was contemporary Canadian music, which I was right on top of. My first concert was Platinum Blonde at Expo Theatre in 1986 when I was 13. I was an avid fan of any video show and most Canadian bands. I was delirious with joy on rare MuchMusic free weekends when I could tape music videos on our recently acquired VCR; many of the bands were by default Canadian thanks to CanCon regulations.

But of all my musical education, live concerts were the best. They were major events and also one of the major sources of conflict in my home. My parents were kind enough to allow me to buy tickets, but logistics were the issue. No question, my dad would drive me and my friends downtown and home again, and that was great. But there was that long, uncomfortable post-concert hangout that drove my patient Dad crazy and prompted him to ask me, a bit unkindly, if I was a groupie. I had no idea what that meant but could tell it was something unsavoury and that he disapproved. My friends and I just wanted to be there until the last moment with other fans like us. Getting a glimpse of a rock star and maybe an autograph was part of the experience.

I had the sense not to tell my parents until very recently about my phone calls and visit to the home of a local musician when I was 15. Randy Gould was the guitarist of Vancouver band, Blvd. Although there would have been no way of convincing my parents at the time, he was nothing like the typical rock musician stereotype. He was not egotistical or narcissistic, nor did he harbour any sordid motives in talking to me and my friends. In every interaction he was kind, maybe a bit amused, and he went along with the antics of a silly teenage girl in order to teach us the truth about rock stars: that they they were just ordinary people, like everyone else. I’m grateful to Randy for that lesson, and recently wrote about that slushy January afternoon when I met him in 1988 (and will be submitting my story to the CBC’s Creative Non-Fiction competition by deadline tomorrow).

So where is Randy Gould, 25 years later? I wish I knew. I’ve tried to find him so I could thank him for being so sweet to me and my friends. A few years ago I came across a woman on facebook who used to know him and was also looking for him. “He was such a nice guy,” she said, and promised to let me know if she found him. In spite of my efforts I haven’t been able to find him or any recent references to him on the web. I don’t want to imagine worst case scenarios, and really hope he’s just out there laying low, quietly doing what he loves.

Via my story and my blog post, I have vague hopes that my gratitude, 25 years later, will reach Randy Gould some way, somehow. But if not, I’ll tell the people here: my story is for you, Randy. Thank you for the music and for being a positive force — and most of all, for helping me tell a great story.

The Ex-Wife Special: A Recipe Just For You

Image of black olive and cheese appetizers on plateWant to connect with your family history? Put aside the photo albums and go to your kitchen. It’s right there, in the cookbooks.

Tonight my family and I went for dinner at our friend’s place. I brought along my aunt’s infamous appetizer, which she refers to as “The Ex-Wife Special”.

Why? Because apparently the one thing my uncle wanted to rescue from his first marriage was his wife’s recipe for black olive and green onion cheddar melts. So my aunt has the ex-wife’s cookbook in her cupboard, alongside the Joy of Cooking and The Best of Bridge.

I think it’s funny (and fascinating) how the foods and drinks we associate with certain people and days past can bring us right back to the good stuff – no matter how much time has passed or how things ended.

My dad’s mom was Austrian and an excellent baker. (She was also pretty feisty, and could tell your future with playing cards if you let her — a skill she learned from the Gypsies she knew in the old country). Her best bakery-worthy sweets were made with almond paste and poppy seeds. But what do I remember liking the most when it came to Grandma’s baking? Her deadly moist and sweet raisin bran muffins, served up alongside her kid-friendly half OJ, half ginger ale cocktail. These were served, without fail, in tall 1970s-style pink and orange frosted glasses whenever we visited Grandma O. at the co-op for a game of Aggravation.

I wonder, years from now, what signature recipe my kids will remember from the time we’ve spent together in the kitchen. I hope they remember making gingerbread houses as a family every Christmas, and baking sugar cookies with seasonal shapes, icing and sprinkles for every fun date on the calendar. But maybe it will be something as ordinary as Sunday morning chocolate chip pancakes (they may just get my son’s vote forever), or cheeseburgers with mashed potatoes and gravy (which my daughter special-requested for dinner at her recent birthday party)?

I bet there’s a family story or two behind some of your favourite foods and recipes — and the people from your past who made them for you. Why not share the memories? I’d love to read about your personal connections of food and family history.

And just in case you’re interested, here’s my aunt’s Ex-Wife Special recipe, just for you:

1 cup chopped black olives
1/3 cup chopped green onions
1/2 cup mayo
1 1/2 cups shredded cheese
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp curry powder
8 English muffins

Mix all the ingredients together, spoon onto English muffin halves and bake for 10 minutes at 400 F. Most importantly, enjoy!

My Great Uncle, The Poet

IMG_20131114_0001 (396x600) You probably have a legend in your family. A relative you may have never met, but whose story is important and has been passed down to you.

This young man is my Uncle Gab. He was made an RCAF Sargeant in December 1940, and was killed in a training accident over Scotland in July 1941. He was 23 when he died, with a fiancée waiting for him back in Canada. His widowed mother was waiting for him, too.

My mom arrived on the scene 10 months after Gabriel died, but for the longest time I didn’t realize they’d never met. It seemed like she knew him. The stories my grandparents, aunts and uncles told must have felt very real to her. I could sense the admiration and love my older relatives had for him when they got talking about the past.

I, too, was intrigued by his story. He applied twice to the RCAF. The first time there was a change in enlistment protocol and he had to apply again a year later. He wanted very much to serve as a pilot and air gunner, and took training in Toronto, Halifax and smaller places. The day after he was made a Sargeant, he was sent to the UK for additional training.

The story goes that the day his plane went down he and another airman had switched places. Normally my uncle would have flown the plane but on this day he was the gunner. I always think of Randall Jarrell’s poem “The Ball Turret Gunner” and wonder if that’s where my uncle sat, in the bottom of a round glass globe, realizing, very suddenly, that he was in a terrible situation. Four other men were on the plane, but Gab was the only one who was killed. His death record states the facts plainly: “Multiple injuries. 5th degree burns. Dead.”

On several occasions my Mom showed me her uncle’s handsome photo and the handwritten poem in faded brown ink she kept in a photo album. Sometimes I asked her to take out the album so I could look at the poem. I’d read it again and again, trying to memorize it. I’d forget about it for a time, then ask her to show me again. But it wasn’t until I was in university, writing poetry and studying the great writers that my interest in the poem piqued. Did my uncle really write this beautiful poem? How did it come to be written? Was there more writing, and if so, did it any of it survive?

The fact that this poem survived, likely written while he was overseas, suggests to me that he placed it somewhere with care — that he wanted it to make it back to Canada even if he didn’t. Equally intriguing to me is that this elegant poem was written in English. Although he attended a bilingual school, Gabriel’s first language was French.

One question leads to another. Was he passionate about reading? Did he read English and French poetry for fun? Did he have a favourite writer? Did he consider himself to be a writer, or just someone who enjoyed playing with words from time to time — or just on long, lonely days spent far away from the people he loved back home?

I know from Gab’s military application that he considered himself an avid sportsman. I love that he also had this thoughtful, artistic side. Musical talent has passed through the genes on both sides of my family. Even my relatives that don’t play an instrument sing beautifully. A few of us like to draw and paint and are quite good at it. As for the literary arts, there’s just this incredible mystery man, my great uncle.

I recently wrote about Uncle Gab in my submission for the CBC Canada Writes Bloodlines competition. It was the first time his poem would have been published. And I’d like to publish it a second time here.

I’m proud of you, Uncle Gab. Thank you for your courage to serve, and for this.

After The Last Long Daring Flight

After the last long daring flight
When her wings no longer spread
And her nose up into the night
Will no more be steered ahead

Then I’ll know my solo hours are passed
And my work is over ere below
And I am bound for wider airways
Where no longer I’ll be flying low

When from the dream I awaken
And hear the angels around me sing
Then God towards me will turn
And hand me a pair of golden wings

Then I’ll fly in heaven forever
Far over these lands down below
And I’ll whisper a fervent prayer
For the dear ones I used to know.

Relax and Enjoy the Arts. It’s Good For You.

My Grandma Bakes

From Mrs. Davies Kindergarten Classroom, circa 1978

Art education is important for our kids.

It helps develop imagination, critical thinking and problem solving skills. Making art helps stimulate memory and develop symbolic communication. It’s also a natural source of learning — a form of expression that reveals and deepens our understanding.

It’s good for all of us in other ways, too. For many creativity can be a joyful journey of self-discovery, even healing. Spending time making stuff also has a way of suspending time. There is nothing quite like the feeling of passing hours that feel like minutes in “the zone”.

Since my happy childhood days drawing horses, choreographing dance moves to Montavani and writing stories I’ve tried all the art forms I could get my hands on.

I collaged, painted and mod-podged my way through my 20s and 30s.

I wrote books of poetry and essays and started a doomed (but ambitious!) novel.

I took flamenco lessons.

I learned to play the guitar, wrote songs and performed them to a small audience of my brother, my girlfriend and my car, Ginger.

I don’t ever want to stop. Self-expression is blissful, even divine.

Being creative, especially writing, helps me process my thoughts, feelings and impressions. When I don’t journal, I feel over-full and stuck, thinking in circles. I generate new and more original ideas when I’m writing. I solve problems magically, it seems, by the process of pushing my hand across the paper.

I’ve noticed when people say they don’t enjoy making art  it’s because they’re struggling with aesthetics. They’re focused on the outcome. They fear that whatever they try won’t turn out. It won’t look good, it won’t sound good, it won’t be good. It will be, worst of all, a waste of time.

For me, the outcome is of course part of the fun, but secondary to the process. Making something is so exciting in itself. Who knows how messing around with paint or words or chords will turn out? If we admit it, wandering in the hazy unknown, even on paper, can be a bit scary for most of us — which makes artists a special kind of brave.

In Negotiating with the Dead Margaret Atwood writes of the dark tunnel writers face (and dread) when they start writing. They don’t know where the story will take them. They don’t know how it will end, or if their hard work will amount to anything. But they do it anyway, over and over again.

I believe artists and other creative sorts enter the dark tunnel because we have to. We’re so strongly compelled into the dark place to see what’s on the other side that it’s not really a choice. The idea won’t go away. The urge to create is too strong. The possibility that something amazing will come out of our efforts outweighs the risk it might actually, in fact, suck.

I dread the tunnel, too. But what I love about emerging is the wonderful surprises you could never predict — those brilliant sparks that make writing and painting and dancing and making music all the more fun.

If we approached creativity as play, nothing more weighty than a doodle, would more of us feel free to relax and enjoy the process?

My New Gig: Barbie Fashion Designer

Barbie clothes

A new artform explored in my house: the 45 minute no-pin, no-fuss Barbie ensemble

This week I embarked on a whole new chapter in creativity.

I took on the challenge of making clothes for my daughter’s Barbie. I’d never thought I’d have the patience for sewing on such a small scale. Now I see that this experiment could lead to a lot of time spent at my beloved avocado green vintage Kenmore.

As it turns out, turning your creativity to small sewing projects has its benefits.

    • No trips to the fabric store until I run out of fabric in 2023
    • No pricked fingers with endless pinning — cut’n’sew!
    • No fussy hems
    • Success in an hour or less

The best part if I throw myself into this new craft? The possibility of fulfilling my dream of one day actually designing clothes — a project I could conceivably start *and* finish. There’s also finding my fortune on Etsy like my friends Hilltop Hausfrau and Red Pear Creative … and, most importantly, delivering all the joy my daughter’s little heart can handle

Which leads me to the real reason creativity, on any scale, is so important.

It’s for sharing.