In Memory of Wislawa Szymborska

I was very sad to hear that Polish poet – and Nobel Laureate – Wislawa Szymborska passed away on Wednesday. I was introduced to her poetry several years ago and I love her simple elegance. The Joy of Writing is one of my favourite poems and captures the power of writing better than any other poem I have ever come across.

The Joy of Writing

Why does this written doe bound through these written woods?
For a drink of written water from a spring
whose surface will xerox her soft muzzle?
Why does she lift her head; does she hear something?
Perched on four slim legs borrowed from the truth,
she pricks up her ears beneath my fingertips.
Silence – this word also rustles across the page
and parts the boughs
that have sprouted from the word “woods.”

Lying in wait, set to pounce on the blank page,
are letters up to no good,
clutches of clauses so subordinate
they’ll never let her get away.

Each drop of ink contains a fair supply
of hunters, equipped with squinting eyes behind their sights,
prepared to swarm the sloping pen at any moment,
surround the doe, and slowly aim their guns.

They forget that what’s here isn’t life.
Other laws, black on white, obtain.
The twinkling of an eye will take as long as I say,
and will, if I wish, divide into tiny eternities,
full of bullets stopped in mid-flight.
Not a thing will ever happen unless I say so.
Without my blessing, not a leaf will fall,
not a blade of grass will bend beneath that little hoof’s full stop.

Is there then a world
where I rule absolutely on fate?
A time I bind with chains of signs?
An existence become endless at my bidding?

The joy of writing.
The power of preserving.
Revenge of a mortal hand.


Back on Track with the Memoir

I’ve been trying to write a memoir for over ten years about the time I spent living on a sailboat with my family when I was a teenager. I haven’t been working on the memoir continuously though. When I started writing it so many years ago I wasn’t concerned with plot, character or theme. I just wanted to get the story down. I wrote about a hundred pages and made the mistake of showing my very rough draft to a writers’ group that I belonged to at the time. Of course, the other writers wanted to know what is the theme? What is this story about other than a faithful recounting of events? These were good questions that I just wasn’t able to answer at the time.

On the surface, living on a sailboat and sailing from Canada to Florida and the Bahamas sounds like a fantasy to most people. There were great time, but there were also some very difficult times. My parents got divorced just a few years after our trip and I have no doubt in my mind that the challenges of living on a small sailboat had a lot to do with that.

Last year, I decided to do NaNoWriMo, even though I was really writing a nonfiction memoir, although at the time I was calling it a novel. I achieved the 50,000 word goal just after the deadline. But without a deadline hanging over my head, I stalled and didn’t touch my memoir for months. Two months ago, I began seriously reading over what I’d written and was seriously bored. It was a faithful recounting of what had happened and each port of call we visited, but was all it was. There was no emotion in the story, no tension, no theme, no real story. I had an overwhelming urge to chuck everything I’d written and start over again. But how?

I dug Your Life as Story by Tristine Rainer out from my bookcase and started reading it again. In Chapter 4, I came across an exercise to “divide your life by pivotal events.” This sounded promising. The idea is to write down the pivotal events in your life. The second part of the exercise is to write down “I wanted” and think back through the different stages of your life and write down what you wanted at each stage. These exercises were meant for helping someone craft an autobiography of an entire life, but it got me thinking about how I could reframe my memoir of a short slice of my life, albeit one that has had a huge impact on my life. I though back through the trip and began listing on index cards the key memories that had the most emotional impact for me, instead of the places we visited. I want to write a memoir about my experience of living on a sailboat as a teenager, not a travel log of where we went.

After writing each memory down on a separate index card, I pinned them up to a cork board, organizing them chronologically. In separate columns, I pinned up the index cards on which I jotted down ideas for theme or description. Looking over my cards, I instantly felt better about where I’m going. I now have a rough path through my book. Plus, the index card methods makes it infinitely easy to add and subtract ideas or rearrange my thoughts. I’m a visual person, so this method is useful to me.

Finding Faith in the Process

Berries in Tree

I envy those writers who say they can just start writing a novel or short story and the story reveals itself as they write. There are writers who claim that they don’t know the ending until they write.

Then there are writers like John Irving who apparently don’t start writing until they know the ending. They then write to discover how to get to that ending.

I’ve been struggling to write a memoir for years. A few months ago I even quit my job to devote my time to writing. You’d think a memoir wouldn’t be so difficult. After all, it is about events that happened. I know how things began and how things ended. But a story, even a non-fiction one, is about so much more than just how things happened. I have a first draft of my memoir—over 50,000 words of what happened during the year and a half that I lived on a sailboat with my family as a teenager. I recently read over everything I’d written to date and frankly it is just a list of events with a little bit of description and a little dialogue thrown in. I find it boring as hell and I was there!

So, I’ve been seeking ways to find a way into the real story behind the events of our sailing trip. I dug out a book I bought a few years ago, Your Life As Story by Tristine Rainer. I’d read this book before, but I guess I wasn’t ready for it at the time. Chapter 3, “What Is Story?” has been helpful. I’ve been thinking about “character arc” —how did the sailing trip change me as a person? How did it change my family members? At the beginning of our voyage I was a child from rural Canada and I returned as a woman who’d seen and experienced many things (good and bad) that most people need a lifetime to achieve.

I’m going to continue working my way through the exercises in the book before I attempt my second draft. I’m one of those writers who needs to have at least a rough map in order to proceed. I don’t need to know what is around every corner in the road, but I have more faith in the process if I at least have a rough road to follow.

Five Things Friday

  1. I’m struggling with my memoir, so I’m going to try this approach to outlining to see if it helps.
  2. I enjoyed this interview with the always inspiring Susannah Conway.
  3. I found these eight writing tips from Flannery O’Connor very insightful. I might try tip #2 to see if I can sort out this issues with my memoir.
  4. More fabulous eye candy – the desks and studios of famous writers and artists.
  5. A fascinating article about the graphic designer behind the Mac icons.


Books That Inspired Me to Write

I’ve been a voratious reader since I learned to read around age five. Here are five books that inspired me to become a writer.

1. Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder – Like many people my age, I was first introduced to this series of books through the 80s TV show. I fell in love with this books and even convinced my parents to purchase the complete boxed set. I read all these books over and over again. I was astonished to learn that she was a normal woman who wrote her story. A “writer” wasn’t a special breed of person. If Ingalls Wilder could write, than so could I.

2. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott – I’d been writing a number of years with some success and a lot of rejection, when I finally discovered books about writing. Bird by Bird was one of the first books I read and it is still one of my favourites. Lamott provides funny and very practical advice about writing, life and the writing life. One of her best pieces of advice is to write “shitty first drafts.”

3. Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen – I’m not sure how I first heard about this book (it was before the movie with Angelina Jolie came out), but it was one of the first memoirs I ever read. Kaysen spent nearly two years in a mental institution. Her bravery to write about her experience and make it public continues to inspire me to tell my story.

4. A Writer’s Diary by Virginia Woolf – I was lucky to find a 1954 hardcover edition of this book in a used bookstore that was going out of business. The Writer’s Diary brings together entries passages from Woolf’s diary that refer directly to her own writing. It was exciting to read her thoughts as she wrote many of her now-classic works, including The Voyage Out and Orlando. It was inspiring to realize that even a writer as brilliant as Woolf struggled at times.

5. House Rules by Rachel Sontag – I’ve written about this book before, and I continue to be inspired by Sontag’s bravery to write about her psychologically abusive father. She is especially brave because her father is still very much alive and has attached Sontag by writing hostile reviews on Amazon and even launching a website attempting to refute Sontag’s portrayal of him in her memoir. However, he has only managed to make himself look bad and lend credibility to Sontag’s book. Again, Sontag inspires me to continue writing my own memoir.

What books inspired you to write?

Pen and Paper, or Computer?

So, I publicly committed to doing NaNoWrimo again this year. I’ve attempted it twice before and didn’t make it to the 50,000 word mark by the end of November. I’m determined to win this year, more because I left my job to write my book and I really want to get it done. Except I’m struggling. The first two days went well, but now I’m struggling. I’ve spent hours staring at the computer screen squeaking how some meagre sentences. Somehow all the inspiration and passion I had for my story has disappeared. I find something paralyzing about looking at a computer screen. The neat lines of double-spaced sentences seem so cold and clinical, and frankly read that way too. I can’t say I’ve really suffered from writer’s block before. I’m more the type to avoid writing all together, but now I have a deadline.

So, while avoiding writing this morning, I came across a link to this podcast with Australian writer Kate Grenville (via Susannah Conway). For each of her eight books, she wrote the first draft with pen and paper. She feels that writing on paper is more intimate and honest, as writing on a computer seems more public. I keep a paper journal and enjoy writing by fountain pen daily. I’ve never had writer’s block with my journal. So, I’m going to pull out a pad of paper, fill a fountain pen and give my book another try.

I’m curious to know, how many of you out there write the first draft on a computer or with pen and paper?