Slow Down and Live!

It’s June! How is it time flies so fast? Is it a sign of age, perhaps? Once we are out of school and start working, maybe have a family, the time just seems to go by in a flash. It’s not like the days are really any shorter, no matter how much it may seem that way. It’s a sign of how busy we’ve become, how much we’ve filled our lives so that there is no time for anything else but work, work, work. For people in the creative fields like writing and art, we actually take time to enjoy the little things in life. We have the capacity to expand each moment, extend the experience, so that we are able to explore and absorb the minutest detail, savor the tiniest nuances of sound, shape, color, flavor, and feel. Rather than whisk through a day, we saunter and flow from one minute to another. It is the very time we choose to take that gives us the details that spice our creations. Indeed, how else would we be able to describe the exquisite beauty of a flower tenderly unfurling its silky petals, releasing its gentle scent to waft on the breeze and float lazily about us, permeating our pores, almost suffocating us with sweetness that lingers for but a moment but lasts in our memories forever? In people’s mad rush to amass as much material wealth and possessions as they can, to maintain classy lifestyles touted by fashionable magazines, to constantly outdo, outbid, outshine the next person, they have forgotten how much beauty, fulfillment, pleasure, and satisfaction they can get from simply slowing down and savoring the little things, the details, the nuances of life. That is where true meaning and meaningfulness is–in the simple, innocuous pleasures of life.

Jaunty Jovial June

“I wonder what it would be like to live in a world where it was always June.”
L.M. Montgomery, Anne of the Island

One of the delights of living on Prince Edward Island is the experience of June. Although associated with summer and one of the hottest months of the year in most countries, June in Prince Edward Island is, to say the least, pleasurable. The temperature in June ranges in the teens with occasional spikes to the low and mid 20s and nights hovering around the low double digits. If you come from a tropical country like I did, that might sound chilly, since the coolest temperatures in the coldest days of January might drop to 18. Here on the Island, that would be the perfect June day sans rain. We do have the occasional sprinkle or thunderstorm, especially at the cusp of May and June, when temperatures might still drop to single digits overnight or in the early morning. The atmosphere does border on muggy when the higher teens climb to the 20s. The best days are when the temperature remains above 16 and below 23 and the sky is the purest blue from one horizon to another, perhaps a dotting of fluff or even a thin blanket of shredded cotton spread across and over the countryside, a whisper of air ruffling the uppermost leaves and branches of the trees. On such a day, you can go anywhere on the Island, be it the beach, a park, a pond, river, or trail—or even just your porch, deck, or balcony—and bask in its luscious glory.

It’s All About Weather

Without a doubt, the weather is probably the most common and most frequently used conversation starter in the world, and certainly on Prince Edward Island. Consider how often the weather is used in a greeting: “Nice day!” “Lovely weather we’re having!” “Lovely day for a walk!” “How’s the weather up there?” “Hello, sunshine!” “Enough rain for you?” In most parts of the world, the weather might be fairly constant. In the Philippines, for instance, there are only two seasons: wet and dry. The dry season is hot and—you guessed it—dry! Wet weather, on the other hand, can be anything from a drizzle to a downpour to an honest-to-goodness typhoon, which occurs approximately 20 times between June and December. As a result, the weather really isn’t a common conversational starter unless it’s to ask during a storm how many inches of water your house went under.

One of the first things I learned when I arrived on PEI is how changeable the weather is. Especially on a bad-weather day, I have heard time and again that if you don’t like the weather, you only have to wait 15 minutes and the weather is likely to change. In reality, it doesn’t always happen that way. I have seen gloriously sunny days stretch on forever and I have seen winter storms trapping people at home for nearly a week.

The one constant, which is probably responsible for the frequent changes in weather, is the wind. In winter and spring, it can be wild and wicked, taking scarves, whipping your coat about, pushing you ahead or knocking you down. For someone with long hair like me, it doesn’t make sense to brush it in this weather because the wind constantly blows it into my face and tosses it in every direction. The good thing about that is, on a dreary day, it also blows the storm clouds away. Unless a downpour is promised, there isn’t any point to carrying an umbrella about because a light drizzle from a blanket of gray clouds quickly disappears as the wind sweeps clouds away and clears the sky. In summer and autumn, the wind is a gentle whisper, cooling down any burning the sun might bring, keeping you fresh whether at the beach enjoying the sun and surf, hiking through a natural park or the confederation trail, reading a book on a city park bench, or traipsing in and out of shops in the city. It’s one of the perks of living on a small island in a temperate climate sheltered within a cove.

Another fairly constant feature of PEI weather is the sunshine. We have lots of sunshine all year round, except on those cloudy days when a storm is brewing and the sky is pelting down precipitation in various forms. Even then, it never stays dark and dreary for days on end and by spring and all throughout summer and fall, we enjoy sunlight anywhere from as little as 8-10 hours a day to as much as 14 hours through the June and July. What can beat that? No wonder people like to talk about the weather so much, half the time, it has to do with trying to guess what the day will bring.

On another note, May is when spring comes into full bloom with temperatures staying above zero and more often hitting double digits at the hottest time of the day. We’ve had our first day of 26 degrees, which was warm and muggy because of the rains, but I don’t hear any complaints because we’ve also had several wonderful sunshiney days, even if the temperature remains at single digits. It’s getting there for sure. While it’s nice and sunny, it might be a little too cool for some people to spend at the beach or out walking, especially if you’re a sedentary writer who prefers to stay indoors and write or read. That and the fact that spring is the prettiest and dressiest season certainly contribute to its being (possibly) the most written-about season of the year in poetry. I imagine spring inspires a lot of positive emotions, hope, light-heartedness, and, of course, love and romance, hence the outpouring of such emotions in poetry throughout the centuries. And because the weather in spring can be as changeable as a young heart’s fancies, it should elicit a more spontaneous outpouring of poesy in writers. So, if you are feeling somewhat uninspired and looking for something to write about, don’t underestimate the weather. Thousands of poems have been written about it and thousands of more will be written. If you can say a great deal about the weather, you certainly will have a lot to write about it as well!

Thoughts on Mother’s Day

Happy Mother’s Day!

When a woman bears children is she ever truly prepared to be a mother? I really don’t think anything will prepare any woman for motherhood. It’s often one of those roles we assume because it has to be done and like real troopers, we go out and do it as best we can. Granted, many women march into that battlefield with no idea what the outcome will be, no idea how long the battle might drag on, no idea what it’s really about, or if it even is a battle at all. Motherhood is an adventure into the great unknown, a new land with borders undefined, where you have no idea who or what you will encounter. No matter how much you prepare yourself, you are never really prepared for everything that will come your way. No amount of wisdom from the mothers that were and the mothers that be is enough to deal with the strangers who push themselves into your life kicking and screaming, or the strangers they pull into your life as they make their way through this world. In the end, although we think we know them more than anyone else in the world, we are sometimes the most surprised to learn we know very little about them and still we leave our arms and hearts open to them regardless of what they bring to us. When we have reached that stage, we know without a shred of doubt that we are mothers.

In a lighter mood, mothers are a favorite subject in many a verse and their virtues are extolled by their literary progeny. When we are faced with all the twists and turns and surprises of mothering, it helps to smile, no matter how wry the reason. As Emily Dickinson puts it:

If Nature smiles — the Mother must
If Nature smiles — the Mother must
I’m sure, at many a whim
Of Her eccentric Family —
Is She so much to blame?

 

This is not to say mothers are paragons of virtue. We all carry an image of the ideal mother in the backs of our minds yet it is no guarantee that any woman who bears a child lives up to that ideal. More often than not women become the mothers they are exposed to, based on the mother-daughter relationships they experience or strive to achieve. Sometimes, women try to compensate for a relationship they never had, try to be the mother they wanted rather than the mother they had. More often, though, women end up becoming their mothers. I think this is true mostly when girls have no other mother-figures in their lives as they grow up and decide how to live their lives. This brings me to wonder how many women actually decided what kind of mother they would be when they did become mothers. I suspect most women simply grow up, bear children, and default to whatever practices they learned from their mothers, whatever practices they experienced. This is all well and good if they grew up in a healthy relationship with their mothers if their mothers were the ideal mothers they believe in. What happens if their mothers were not at all ideal? In the same way nobody is perfect, we will be sorely challenged to find the perfect mother. I would argue, however, that what is ideal is not necessarily perfect. What is ideal is what is best for a specific situation. In that way, your ideal mother might not be the same as my ideal mother, even if they might have several similar traits. It is those traits we probably all seek, and those same traits women who want to be good mothers should strive towards. I don’t imagine the traits I believe the ideal mother should have are any different from most people: nurturing, loving unconditionally, supportive, encouraging, enabling, patient, kind, open-minded, warm, generous. If all mothers possessed these traits, I imagine we would have a lot fewer problems in this world.

 

Learning Through Writing

“It’s the writing that teaches you.”
Isaac Asimov

Writers are among the most fortunate of people because they have the unlimited opportunity to learn at their fingertips. Literally. Writers who think they already know everything and write so they can share that knowledge with readers or teach readers what they know are not true dedicated writers. Dedicated writers have an insatiable need to learn more, whether by serendipity, discovery, or deliberate research. When you write, you are driven by questions you seek to answer. Those questions could begin with something as simple as, “What happens next?” and progress to “How did it happen?” and “Why did it happen?” If you want to write in great detail about a family living in Saskatchewan and you want it to seem as realistic as possible, you have no excuse but to learn as much as you can about Saskatchewan, even going as far as visiting the place and spending hours where you want your story to happen. If you want to set your story in medieval France, while you can’t visit medieval France itself, you can certainly dig up as much information as you can about it. You’ll read historical accounts, maybe dig up some historical fiction as well; you’ll research names, costume, culture, politics. You’ll visit museums, talk to historians, look at photographs. In the process, guess what’s happening? You’re learning from your writing process. If you were to write a courtroom drama, you would have to learn the procedures, the protocol, the people involved, the jargon, even specific cases and the laws and statutes involved. Guess what? You’re learning from your writing. Writers who write only what they already know limit their repertoire and, consequently, their readership. If they aren’t learning new things from their writing, neither are their readers.

Writing doesn’t just teach writers new ideas. It doesn’t just expand our perspective. We don’t just learn about people, places, procedures, or things. We’re not just creating new characters; we are exploring the human psyche, the intricacies of life, the depths and heights of emotions. We’re not just passing through places; we are exploring the nooks and crannies and alleys and backstreets of villages, towns, cities, and nations; we are living in a dozen houses and learning how they have become homes or not. We’re not just describing steps or actions; we’re investigating procedures and, more than that, we’re uncovering motives and purposes. We’re not just bandying objects about; we’re learning how objects can take on meanings and become central to actions, to relationships, to life.

Over and beyond all that learning, we are constantly learning more about writing. We learn how to be concise in our language. We learn to choose the exact words to mean something. We learn the nuances of thousands of words along with idiomatic expressions the change word meanings depending on prepositions combined with them or their local color. We learn to hone our sentences to perfection so every single word has a purpose. We learn to become lean mean writing machines. We learn to check our facts and investigate new facts. We learn to make notes, plan plots, design characters. All this from simply writing over and over and over again. What other pursuit can constantly improve us while entertaining us and giving us new adventures with each writing? Need I say why else I want to be a writer?

Write Like an Expert

At the risk of sending certain words into oblivion or exhibiting them in some museum of dead words, I have to remind writing students longer words are not always the best choice in writing. I have students who think they should not use the same word more than once in an essay and search assiduously for synonyms to replace a single word should they need to use that word a second or third time. There is such a thing as introducing variety in your vocabulary and using the exact word. If there is no alternative to the exact word, by all means, use the exact word instead of using alternative words. If a word can replace a phrase, choose the phrase over the word to avoid the downfall of many a writer: wordiness. If a plainer word exists that more people will understand, use the plainer language. Throwing in exotic, long, fancy words when simple language suffices is more likely to repel readers. Besides, when words are used out of context, you risk conveying the wrong meaning or creating the wrong impression. Probably the best rule to follow in choosing words as you write is to use mainly words in your active vocabulary. When those words are not enough, go ahead and rummage through the rest of your vocabulary. If you still cannot find the right word, then do consult a thesaurus but check your choice for the most apt meaning and usage. When in doubt, search for nuances and implications, because the word you choose could have a special significance or usage. If you are writing in a particular genre, for instance detective, crime, or espionage stories, you need to familiarize yourself with the terminology used within those professions. Not knowing the right lingo reveals you are no expert in that area and the last thing you need is to lose credibility. Yes, there is a Dictionary of Espionage.

You can compensate for your lack of expertise in an area you want to write about by consulting other experts besides dictionaries and encyclopediae. Find someone familiar with the area you are writing about and solicit their advice on technical details. Ask them to beta read your story and help you straighten out your details and terminology. Do your research, whether by reading expert and reliable sources extensively or interviewing expert sources. Read works by writers you admire in the genre you want to write so you can emulate them, if not at least get an idea of the language they use. If at all possible, you can immerse yourself in the environment. If you are writing a cop story, hang around a police precinct, talk with them, get a feel for their language. Unfortunately, there will be severe limitations to how much you can actually witness, as well as how much can be revealed to you or that you can reveal in your stories. We can’t all be as fortunate as Frank Castle who can run around with police detectives and observe them solving crimes in person, using their stories as fodder for his best-selling novels. That’s where the fiction comes in. There will be greater difficulty observing actual detective work, espionage, or even other branches or areas of law enforcement. I have heard real cops say nothing you see in all the tv cop series is anything like the real thing. That’s the cold hard truth. It’s all fiction. Really, if you can’t have a real-life model, all you need is your imagination to craft a meticulously well-planned world with all the details worked out so your characters interact with consistent surroundings. You create the world, you make the rules, you play god. That’s how you create your fictional world.

On Writing: Vividness, Vocabulary, and more on Said

Vivid descriptions are key to drawing readers deeper into your writing, whether prose or poetry. Your challenge as a writer is to create images and scenes with words, to reproduce intense emotions and experiences with descriptions so your readers can experience what you have. It’s creating vicarious experiences for readers, affording them a glimpse into your world, into your mind. Writers who do not take advantage of the wealth of words available in the English language create their own handicap and limit their writing to the mundane. Besides limiting their potential, writers who do not stretch their vocabularies where the language takes them also limit their potential to teach their readers the beauty and power of language. As a writing teacher, I am committed to helping my students improve their vocabulary because vocabulary is essential to writing. A writer with a poor vocabulary is like a runner with only one leg.

I have written several times about using exact language, especially in writing, and it’s not something I will ever stop writing about. Society is no great help in this regard, especially when it promotes vague language by using words such as “stuff” and “things” for objects, or “nice” and “great” for anything positive. Writing teachers have been trying to teach their students year after year how to use more precise language, more vivid words. After all, writing is about creating images for the reader in words. If your writing cannot provide the reader with sufficient details to recreate the picture or scene you, as the writer, imagined, then you have failed. Let me revisit “said is dead”. If you haven’t yet found enough words more vivid than “said”, here’s a short list of “a” words to get you started.

Acknowledged, acquiesced, added, addressed, admitted, admonished, advised, advocated, affirmed, agreed, alleged, allowed, announced, answered, approved, argued, assented, asserted, assumed, assured, asked, attested, avowed.

As a reminder, I admonish writers not to use a dialogue tag to merely repeat or state the obvious. In this case, I refer to writing a question in dialogue and ending it with a question mark, then using the dialogue tag “she asked” or “he asked”. The use of a question mark to end a sentence, in itself, indicates a question has been asked, hence, the dialogue tag can be dispensed with and replaced with a description of an action or expression, instead. For instance, what do people do when they ask questions? Some might raise an eyebrow or both eyebrows, frown, shake their head, raise their hands to their sides with palms facing up, scratch their head, or rub the back of their neck. As in previous writing, I continue to recommend keen observation of behavior because that is what will give you, as a writer, the images you will recreate in your writing.

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