Posted on July 5, 2013
June and July – the months of graduations, commencements and convocations. Over the years, I’ve attended them as a student, as a teacher, and most recently as a parent and as a guest. This year, I have had the honour of speaking at two ceremonies. The following thoughts highlight the key messages I was trying to convey.
Do take the time to celebrate. Like the Roman god Janus, graduation has two faces – one looking back, the other forward. In other words, graduation marks both an end and a beginning. Celebrate your accomplishments. Doing so will make you feel good, and energize you to be excited about what is to come.
Learn the difference between dreams and goals. Since I was an immigrant child learning English, I have dreamt about publishing a book. It was during my five years in the Creative Writing program at U of T’s School for Continuing Studies that my outlook and attitude towards writing shifted. I moved from having dreams of writing to having goals of being published. There are significant differences between dreams and goals. Dreams allow you to be lazy; there are no deadlines and no accountabilities. Goals, on the other hand, require focus, action, and adherence to deadlines. It takes little effort to dream and to fantasize. It takes a lot of hard work and planning to reach your goals.
Dream, set goals, celebrate. Repeat.
[This entry also appears on the 11th Floor Writers’ blog.]
Posted on April 4, 2013
Emily Dickinson said, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”
Organized and sponsored by the League of Canadian Poets, Canada has acknowledged April as National Poetry Month since 1999. The United States introduced the idea in 1996. Great Britain celebrates October as their National Poetry Month.
Sometimes I struggle through a poem, lost in the words or its meaning. I love the freedom that comes with reading them. There are no right or wrong answers – there shouldn’t be. You can read a poem, and it is yours to interpret; yours to personalize. I love how some poems make me feel. Like music, they can provoke me to tears, to laughter. Or they can leave me thinking, reflecting. Sometimes, they even leave me confused and dazed.
A few of my favourites:
The Cross of Snow by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
A haunting poem. Longfellow’s wife burned so badly when her dress caught on fire, she died shortly afterwards.
i carry your heart with me by e.e. cummings
One of the best love poems ever.
I Am in Need of Music by Elizabeth Bishop
And in honour of both National Poetry Month and the month of April:
Always Marry An April Girl by Ogden Nash
More on National Poetry Month:
Posted on April 3, 2013
Wow – there really is an organization called the Apostrophe Protection Society. It exists in England and thanks to its founder, John Richards, the apostrophe that had been banned from local street signs in Mid Devon, England, has been lifted.
Apparently the apostrophe debate has been ongoing for years there (see here). Town Council had argued in favour of removing the apostrophe. They stated that they were receiving too many complaints from the public about the proper use of apostrophes, and that the apostrophes were confusing the GPS systems.
As a former ESL student and ESL teacher, I could only imagine the confusion the absence of an apostrophe could create for students learning English. St. Pauls Square – does it belong to Paul? Or are there many Pauls?
Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynn Truss (paperback)
Posted on January 31, 2013
Whether they are happy, dark, or ironic, I love twist endings. I stumbled onto “A Letter to God”, a short story by Gregorio Lopez Fuentes (translated by Donald A. Yates). It is about a poor farmer named Lencho who sadly loses his crops during a terrible hailstorm. Poor, but a man with strong faith, he writes to God and asks for money to help him get through the winter. The ending made me laugh out loud – it was so nutty. You can click on the story title to read it online.
It takes talent and good storytelling to create a twist ending that works. It can’t feel forced or heavy-handed to be effective.
Here are some links you might want to check out:
Posted on January 21, 2013
I love books where I feel connected with the main character, or when the character is someone whom I admire and want to root for. I recently saw Les Miserables again. Jean Valjean is an example of a character I both admire and feel tremendous sympathy for – a character almost impossible for me to forget.
There are several books and online resources that offer great advice, tips, and suggestions on how to create complex and compelling characters. One book title I’d like to pass along is Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s 45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters. It’s definitely worth checking out. Schmidt looks at several archetypes, both heroic and villainous, to explore character traits and behaviours. Her examples of memorable characters from books, movies, and T.V. are especially helpful in shaping our understanding of classic archetypes.
Also worth checking out:
Posted on December 31, 2012
One of the things I wanted to do during this holiday break was catch up on my reading. I have far more books than I could possibly get through in one calendar year. I keep buying them, intending to read them later. I also get a lot of books as gifts.
Of the books I did get to this year, Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negros, was my favourite. It was published in 2007, and I wish I had gotten to it sooner! Hill’s protagonist, Aminata Diallo, who was abducted as a child from her village in West Africa and sold into slavery, continues to haunt me. The story had such an effect on me that I couldn’t pick up another book for two weeks.
I also thought Ins Choi’s play, Kim’s Convenience, was brilliant. The story hit close to home. Both Ins and I, although we have never met, immigrated to Canada in1975, and had families that worked in variety stores in downtown Toronto. I wrote about this play in an earlier blog.
Now that it is 2013, there are several lists of ‘the best books of 2012’ published everywhere. Here are a few to check out.
Posted on December 28, 2012
Years ago, as a way to gain greater confidence speaking in front of an audience, I signed up for a series of singing workshops. I recently found the notes I took during the workshops. The following was written after my first class.
The lights were too bright, and right away my body tensed up sensing the reality of the situation. I was on stage!
I had prepared for this. I tried to take a deep breath but my throat closed up. I was shaking. I was so busy trying to conceal my nervousness that I didn’t notice that the music had begun. I opened my mouth and looked in front of me, and just as quickly, dropped my eyes. I started singing.
I desperately wanted to look up but knew no words would come out if I did. So I did the only thing I could: I sang to the floor. It felt safe as long as I pretended that I was not on stage with strangers’ eyes resting on me. I hid behind my hair, kept purposely long for that reason. I could hear my own voice echoing softly in the air and to my surprise, liked the sound. It allowed me to get through to the end.
The reaction of my classmates was encouraging. Suddenly, the room felt cozy.
The first exercise that Art, the instructor, assigned me was to make eye contact with each person in the room. Easier said than done. I reminded myself that I had already sung the song once and no one had asked me to leave. I drew strength from the energy I picked up in the room.
It was a challenge made easier by the warmth and support of my classmates who, with their smiles and silent encouragement helped me get through the song again. It felt great! What I learned most from this exercise was that it was actually EASIER to perform in front of a crowd if I made eye contact because I got a response from the people in front of me; an acknowledgement that they were listening. Suddenly performing was made an exchange between me as the performer and them, as the audience. It wasn’t about me on stage doing everything.
The last exercise was called Copycat. Not only did I have to make eye contact with my classmates, I had to mirror whatever movements they made. This was tricky at first because singing suddenly entailed focusing on the audience and not the song. I found myself doing everything from running my fingers through my hair to sticking out my tongue in the middle of the song! By the end, I realized I was so busy following the audience’s movement that I forgot to be nervous on stage! It was amazing. And this was only my first class.
To read more, click here.
Posted on November 12, 2012
I’ve never been good at waiting. It often leaves me feeling restless, impatient, and even anxious. I used to do a lot more waiting in the past – when I had to actually go into a bank to do my banking, when I took public transit everywhere, and when I used to hand-write letters, mail them off, and wait weeks or even months for a response.
I resented waiting because I didn’t have a choice but to endure it.
Most recently though, I’ve come to realize that as a writer I should appreciate the opportunities that come as a result of waiting. It’s the bald-headed cashier with the purple lipstick who will spark a story idea. Give her a name. A few idiosyncrasies. A temper. What would she do if she was forced to wait 40 minutes in a supermarket line, a crying baby and a mother who refuses to get off her cell phone behind her?
Posted on October 21, 2012
It’s been five years since I joined the 11th Floor Writers. Of all the benefits that I have reaped over the years, the following three are the most significant.
The circle has kept me a disciplined writer.
Because we have regular meetings, the circle has kept me motivated to write. We push each other as necessary to keep everyone working on something. The whole purpose of being in the group is to write and receive feedback. We work to move each other forward.
The circle has helped me better understand my writing strengths and needs.
Getting feedback is absolutely critical as a writer. Members point out discrepancies, and make recommendations to strengthen the submitted pieces of writing. My writing skills have also further developed by critically examining the works of other writers and trying to provide meaningful and constructive feedback.
Because we meet face-to-face, friendships have formed over the years.
Friendships with other writers have become especially important to me as I evolve in this craft. Fellow writers who believe in each other and encourage each other to forge ahead is critical when we become unmotivated or uninspired to write.
Five years ago, I submitted a raw first chapter to the circle. It was a humbling experience. Over the course of several years, I have worked through an entire novel manuscript. In June 2012, this manuscript won The Marina Nemat Award, a writing award from the University of Toronto. I attribute much of my growth as a writer to the ongoing support and guidance I get by being a member of a strong and inspired writing circle.
[This entry also appears on the 11th Floor Writers’ blog. Click here.]
Posted on September 3, 2012
Since I was a kid, September has always marked the beginning of a new year. Between completing my writing programs and my ed-related courses, I’ve been in school steadily since I initially graduated from the University of Toronto back in the early 90s.
So, in the spirit of a new year, the following are this year’s resolutions: