Sunday, December 12, 2010

Road Music

Every road trip I take ends up being part of my musical memory trove, as well as all the other visual and logistical and emotional memories. Add visceral, culinary, spiritual and practical richness, as in no speeding tickets! No accidents, no road rage, no negative stuff to fume about. A complete joy, call it kinesis, whatever, I call it a great road trip when I hear the opening bars of a song and instantly recall where I was when it meant so much: the Pine Pass or the North Island Highway between Sayward and Port McNeill or the Paliser Triangle outside Eastend, Saskatchewan listening to Guy Vanderhaege's The Englishman's Boy on a CD as we drove into the setting of his great novel. Best to listen to books on tape/CD when driving across the prairies or around the interminable Great Lakes.

Best to have instrumental music when tackling mountain roads with rockfall, deer, black ice and the like to keep a sharp, undistracted pair of eyes and excellent eye-hand co-ordination on the ready.

My last road trip, October 2010, became a Gypsy Kings tribute and I perfected the art of seat-dancing. Yes. You heard right. People who live in chairs do it all the time, of course, but ordinary drivers usually restrict themselves to an index finger tapping on the wheel or little bouts of drumming on the dash when stopped for a light or a flag-person or gridlock. We all hum but I especially love seeing people in full vocal throttle, singing their heads off while driving. More power to them, I say. I also love seeing little women with a big dog in the passenger seat and big men with one or two tiny dogs buddying up to them, but this is about music not visuals. I digress, yet again.

I always bring a stash of CDs to listen to because BC has six mountain chains and many offshoots marching down the provincial terrain from top to bottom and radio reception is often the pits unless one has Sirius Satellite Radio on-board, which I don't. On this trip, for some reason, the only album I wanted to listen to, over and over again, was the Gypsy Kings Greatest Hits. I loved Corb Lund's Losin' Lately Gambler and Great Big Sea's Road Rage and listened to them too but for seat-dancing, you can't beat the Kings and it was such a glorious trip, sunny and such fun, that it was impossible for me to sit still. Too Much Happiness claims Alice Munro, as per the title of her latest wonderful collection of stories. But I'm sure she would have understood my state since she knows absolutely everything about why we do what we do and when we do it.

So if you saw someone singing full throttle (assuming you are an expert lip-reader and multi-linguist) in Romany-inflected Spanish and head-bopping and shoulder-shrugging and writhing inexplicably in a silver Toyota Echo on the highways of BC in October, that was me. I was belting out "Soy" or "Djobi Djoba". "Soy" sounds remarkably like "My Way" but Paul Anka wasn't listed among the songwriting credits. Anyway, highly recommended album for buoyant driving expeditions.

Driving tips and a reading tip too. Do check out Anne DeGrace's website and her three books. You will be glad you did. Her debut book, Treading Water is the 2010 One Kootenay, One Book choice and Anne was touring East and West Kootenay libraries with it while organizing my Nelson reading and the launch of the Nelson Library cookbook project AND a revised and updated photography book that she co-wrote AND produced about the beautiful, bustling town of Nelson. On words! Up words!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Why and how writing groups make all the difference

Why and how writing groups make all the difference
...because it’s such isolated work, staring at blank pages, or computer screens, summoning up the chutzpah to invent whole worlds not to mention banishing judgmental crows with their claws digging into my head, forming a community with other writers is an emotional and practical necessity.
I attempted to write fiction in physical and virtual isolation for three years before signing up for a writing program, David Thompson University Centre in Nelson, B.C. in 1983/84. I’d published in magazines and newspapers- non-fiction, a few poems and travel articles- but not fiction, and the synthesis of memory and imagination that is fiction, was the form I was most interested in writing.
At DTUC, we were taught by published, working writers, not academics. Our writing classes were most often conducted as workshops, moderated by the instructor, where we learned to give and take constructive criticism.  The goal was clarity; improving the writing to make it as good as it could possibly be. The tone in the workshops was civil, respectful and often generous in spirit and we learned as much about editing as we did about writing. Most of us blossomed and went on to work with the musicians, actors and visual artists on campus, producing collaborations for public viewing. I learned there that artists whose egos hamper their intellects and who will not work or play well with others, who refuse to have a word changed in their stage monologues or magazine submissions or who will not take direction from anyone, professional or fellow student, will not progress very far in their art form. Happily, most of the students were mature (average age: 28 in the writing program though age is never a sure-fire guarantee of maturity) and very bright and a good number of us are working in the arts to this day.
When this amazingly productive and creative post-secondary art school was closed by the Bill Bennett Socreds of that unfortunate era, all I could do was be grateful I’d had one glorious year and to carry on. About nine people, led by Fred Wah and Pauline Butling, former instructors, and a number of former students, formed the Kootenay School of Writing in Nelson in 1984/5 with a counterpart ‘school’ in Vancouver. As of today, 2010, both groups are still active although the Nelson group is in the midst of reconsidering its focus and mission, after 25 years of strictly volunteer effort. We brought in writers in all genres except children’s literature, which was the only genre not taught at DTUC, with the support of the Canada Council. We organized tours in the Kootenays for the guest writers, sending them up to Kaslo, Nakusp, Silverton and the Slocan Valley as well as Nelson and sometimes Castlegar. In the late 80’s and early 90’s, when I volunteered for 9 years, we brought in David Adams Richards, Sylvia Fraser, Joan MacLeod, Michael Ondaatje, Frank Moher, Carol Bolt, Rosemary Sullivan and a great number of other poets, playwrights, fiction and non-fiction writers. We feted and fed them, loaned them winter boots, coddled their colds and learned from them in the workshops we asked them to lead in Nelson. We also organized the best book launches for each other and seasonal group readings for the public that were very well-attended.
A number of us organized and hosted Starving Artist Dinner Parties, potlucks with a culinary and spiritual purpose, to feed bodies as well as souls. One day in the year that Paulette Jiles won the Governor-General’s Award, the Pat Lowther Award and the Gerald Lampert Award for her book of poems, Celestial Navigation (M&S), she found her cupboard bare except for bulgur and onions, so we determined to do something good and creative with that sad fact: thus the S.A.D.P. tradition was born to nourish us all.
Informally, I formed writing retreat groups with a number of other writers, notably Rita Moir and Vi Plotnikoff, and we’d hole up somewhere pleasant and cheap with food, wine and lap-tops, reading to each other from our new works-in-progress in the evenings. Sometimes, giving or getting out to dinner parties with other writers is as much as we can do, with our busy lives and deadlines, to support each other with good conversation, good food and good wishes. Practically speaking, we, former students and instructors, all friends and fans, often help each other out by organizing book launches and tour publicity and book sales. Linda Crosfield (Google for her great blog) has a Roving Book Table that she brings to many Kootenay literary events.  She also makes and hand-binds beautiful books and publishes her poetry internationally.
Which brings me to the present era of writers’ support groups, given my life as a light-keeper, which is that of internet writing buddies, linked by email. Not as much fun as dinner parties but it helps me stay on track, stay focused on writing, and to feel, even when things are not going well, that I am a ‘real’ writer and must keep going. With one group, I formed a publishing collective, wherein we read and edited each other’s work, organized each other’s book launches and sold our books to stores and at writing festivals. With others, I exchange writing for critiques or discuss strategies for events or writing contracts or submission tactics; with one, I exchange vows on the first of every month as to writing goals, share the triumphs of the preceding month and temporary setbacks, all rants and raves for confidential and understanding ears. What it means is that every time a writing buddy anywhere I’ve lived gets a book published or is nominated for an award or is asked to tour elsewhere, we all get to celebrate because we all know how long and hard that friend has worked to get the story/book/script right and written. We toast the great joy of creative work seeing the light of day and we all shine our lights on the creator and the work. We know this is temporary, too, because we must all return to the blank page and the empty screen but in the meantime, we send a flurry of congratulatory emails and nice cards and if possible, celebrate in person, with joyful gusto.
So, odd as it may seem, writing is an intensely solitary as well as generously communal act, in my experience, which may be utterly atypical. I enjoy being a semi-hermit and getting the imaginative work and the hard work of writing done and I also enjoy being very sociable and meeting other writers and readers. I need a balance of both worlds to support my inner life as a writer and this works for me so I am grateful!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Woodward On The Road

Today I sing the praises of the West Kootenays, that region in the southeast of British Columbia of narrow green valleys flanked by the Monashees, the Purcells, and the Selkirks,  and nestled within are the long deep lakes, Arrow, Slocan, and Kootenay. But even more than the comfort of its plentiful hotsprings and the charm of its turn of the last century architecture and bucolic farms and orchards are its people, the lively, loyal, creative, amazing people.

They do things with a different sort of camaraderie and celebration here in the Koots. A publisher friend responds to my praise of her garden by saying that she and three friends are spending three hours in each other's gardens: weeding, visiting, composting, whatever is required. What a gift at the end of each garden season, to have experienced gardeners arrive for a mini-work bee, in this case, a publisher, bookstore owner, glass sculptor and professional nursery owner with a past life as an academic administrator and professor.

I used to tell other writers on tour when I was a volunteer with the Kootenay School of Writing that practically everyone in the Kootenays is an artist, was an artist or will be one someday. I introduced Carol Shields to a shoe repair person and owner of a delightful new and second-hand shoe store who was a retired dancer from the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and they had a wonderful conversation. I explained to my sister, a bank manager, that my friend in a Nelson bank had just returned from a tour to Japan with the Nelson Bagpipe Band, of which she was a longtime member. That, of course, was some time ago but today, the villages of Nakusp, New Denver, Silverton, the rural centres of the Slocan and Kootenay valleys and the city of Nelson are buzzing with back alley galleries, live concerts, public lectures on the Art of Storytelling, to name just one topic, delight-filled independent bookstores and hundreds of other creative ventures.

I drove and walked around my beloved Kootenays, smitten with the orange and blue and green of it all, treated with love and kindness and wonderful hospitality by friends on my Fall 2010 book tour. People came out to listen to me read from my new novel, people I hadn't seen for many decades in some cases, and I marvel again at how the people in small towns and cities get out and show up at live arts events in such numbers.

In New Denver, where my husband and I founded and ran The Motherlode Bookstore from 1993-2001, 90 citizens showed up in the venerable Bosun Hall to cheer me on and even better, to respond to Mayor Gary Wright's brilliant auctioneering tactics by bidding for their names to be used in character roles (professional dog walker, Antique Junque Store owner, bird newspaper columnist, hero and villain, with Oolichan Books in The Village of Many Hats, in 2011 or 2012) and we raised over $850 for the New Denver Reading Centre! The bidding for the villain started at $50 and was a hotly contested role, eventually won by the Valhalla Community Choir director, Francie Oldham, and yours truly had foolishly offered to match funds, fearing the good citizens would be reluctant to see their good names besmirched in a 3-D book for all to read. Quite the opposite occured with a bidding war so this is what I mean, people do things differently in the Kootenays. They gang up and organize and work hard and support each other. Everyone applauds and 'gets it' when people do creative work. There's very little of that snooty Canadian attitude in these joyful valleys, no 'Who Do You Think You Are?' looking down the long nose at dancers and painters and bagpipers and writers.

One last anecdote for now: my dear friend and writer, Rita Moir (Windshift (D&M)most recently) organized the Vallican Whole reading and her partner, Dan Armstrong is a blacksmith (appropriately monikered for such an occupation). Gentle Dan made cookies for my reading at the Whole inbetween pounding out a massive set of railings on the forge. They were sugar cookies, bedecked with pink icing and little sprinkles, with hearts on them and the initials P for Penny and W for Wade, to salute my characters in Penny Loves Wade, Wade Loves Penny (Oolichan Books). Does it get much sweeter than this on a book tour? Nope!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Launching from Estevan Point

October 3, 2010, Estevan Point Lighthouse, 82 Alpha on the VHF
Latitude: 49 degrees 22 minutes 58.7 seconds North
Longitude: 126 degrees 32 minutes 38.4 seconds West
Digital location, interestingly, varies slightly but for those with functioning GPS systems, we are at Latitude 49.382972 and Longitude 126.544028 OR Latitude 49.383333 and Longitude 126.543333.                                                                                                                                                                                                                             
These are just a few of my new words, new to me since my intrepid middle-aged partner and myself, a woman of a certain age, decided to have at least one more major adventure, fleeing our busy word-obsessed careers in the sales and marketing of books. Now we are lighthouse keepers, an archaic profession to some, but to me, a wonderful blend of the old and true and the scientific and new.
Every lighthouse (the bureaucratic word is ‘lightstation’ but as you will discover, I prefer Bookman Old Style font and people, real and fictional, whose actions exemplify virtues like loyalty, kindness and courage and I like good, solid words or interesting new-to-me words from obscure professions or other language origins. I make fun of plodding words, dull taupe prose by any other name. Even my Yankee spell checker within the mysterious innards of this computer snorts red at the strained functionality of ‘lightstation’.) are you still with me? Every staffed lighthouse has its origins, its raison d├Ętre, and I enjoy discovering the history, the geography, the natural endowments of plants, sea life, creatures big and small, and the hazards inherent in each site.
Estevan Point Lighthouse is north of Tofino, B.C., Canada, on the west coast of Vancouver Island. It was built in 1909 of cement, with flying buttresses supporting the tower. There are 147 steps to the cupola (another new lighthouse word) where the light turns round and round 24/7. On the guard rail around the cupola walkway, two webcams are attached, blankly gazing southeast and northwest. I want to reach over and make rude gestures but I’m a professional light-keeper now and that would be juvenile and rude, however tempting and fun it would be to do. I cannot imagine how encrusted with salt spray and bird crap their lenses must be but I have received no orders to clean them. What interests me most is the sun recorder attached to one guardrail, a glowing glass ball in the grips of a metal attachment that makes me think of the word ‘sextant’ (even though I know it isn’t one) as in Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner or something that Captain George Vancouver would have had near at hand when he was charting this massive island. I remove a sun card every evening and insert a new one to, so that this instrument can measure the sunlight. You heard right. The sun’s rays pass through the glass ball and scorch a path which can be measured to the tenth of an hour by someone like myself, who does the measuring with a transparent plastic graph and who enters the data into the computer.
We are able to measure the day’s minimum and maximum temperatures and the humidity by looking at the thermometers housed within the Stevenson screen. Robert Louis Stevenson’s grandfather, indeed, a number of the men in his Scottish family, designed and built lighthouses in the 1800’s. This free-standing enclosed unit, with louvered wooden slats allowing air but not rain to flow in, is another of their inventions.
There is a wind anemometer sensibly placed on the lighthouse tower sending its data on wind speed and direction to a display device housed in the warm and dry radio room where we give our seven daily weather reports. We are able to see the pattern of violent gusts, from 5 knots to 36 knots in a heartbeat, or to watch a steadily building northwester coming at us. Most lighthouses have a precipitation gauge and Estevan also has a barograph with graph sheets that we read and report on at every scheduled weather report radioed in between 4:40 a.m. to 10:40 p.m. We also call in weather specials when conditions have measurably worsened since the last report, posing a hazard to mariners and/or aviators. 
The resident keepers, who are taking their annual holiday leave, have a separate contract from the usual weather data collection and Jeff, my husband and Principal Keeper, is carrying on with their once-weekly task of collecting air samples. A computerized link-up from the equipment here at Estevan Point to the central agency in Ontario allows for a continuous flow of data, augmented by flasks of air shipped out whenever a handy Coast Guard helicopter with space happens to be flying over us. This is all about measuring greenhouse gases. At some lighthouses, like Egg Island, Entrance Island and Nootka, to name three we have worked at, sea samples are also collected daily, for temperature measurement and salinity levels. I find all of this quite fascinating and I am investigating taking oceanography courses online this winter. Because of our extreme marine weather and climate conditions, lighthouses are perfectly situated for all the keepers on all 27 staffed lights on this coast to collect much more data on the state of our oceans and our atmosphere. So I will close this blog with an even earlier, historic incident at Estevan Point Lighthouse, which plays with the notion of truth, reality, propaganda and whose words are censored and why this is so.

Estevan Point once housed over forty people during World War II and was, according to some, shelled by a Japanese submariner with terrible eyesight because the bombardment failed to hit a single building, let alone one of the tallest lighthouses in Canada. It is a much-disputed attack, widely thought to have been a hoax perpetrated by the Allies to spur on Canadian volunteer enlistment, much like The Day the Nazis Invaded Winnipeg street theatre, documented on film. I’d love to know how many idle deck hands on the BC coast or under-employed farm hands in Manitoba signed up.

On words,

Caroline Woodward