While I've well documented my coffee habit obsession over the years, I also drink tea - particularly when I need to concentrate. Goes back to high school, I think. I stock up on bags from Britannia Teas on Water Street (and am always grateful to Kelly Jones for her advice), and a favourite has been Russian Caravan. It's not to everyone's taste, I imagine; Martha, in fact, can't abide the smell of it when it's brewing. It reminds me of Bill Kelly, my maternal grandfather, in part because it reminds me of fresh pipe tobacco, and even though I've never smoked, the scent is fine as it floats past the nose. It's the flavour, though, that works for me, so much so that I associate it now with "time to get to work and write something."
Martha drew my attention to this older piece from the Los Angeles Times by author Rebecca Solnit. It's about (among other things) gender and meaning, and it also includes a terrific anecdote that any writer would love to have happen to them.
In it, Solnit describes meeting a man who appears to be impressed most with himself.
He kept us waiting while the other guests drifted out into the summer night, and then sat us down at his grainy wood table and said to me, "So? I hear you've written a couple of books."
I replied, "Several, actually."
He said, in the way you encourage your friend's 7-year-old to describe flute practice, "And what are they about?"
They were actually about quite a few different things, the six or seven out by then, but I began to speak only of the most recent on that summer day in 2003, my book on Eadweard Muybridge, the annihilation of time and space and the industrialization of everyday life.
He cut me off soon after I mentioned Muybridge. "And have you heard about the very important Muybridge book that came out this year?"
So caught up was I in my assigned role as ingenue that I was perfectly willing to entertain the possibility that another book on the same subject had come out simultaneously and I'd somehow missed it. He was already telling me about the very important book -- with that smug look I know so well in a man holding forth, eyes fixed on the fuzzy far horizon of his own authority.
Here, let me just say that my life is well-sprinkled with lovely men, including a long succession of editors who have, since I was young, listened and encouraged and published me; with my infinitely generous younger brother; with splendid male friends. Still, there are these other men too.
So, Mr. Very Important was going on smugly about this book I should have known when Sallie interrupted him to say, "That's her book." Or tried to interrupt him anyway.
But he just continued on his way. She had to say, "That's her book" three or four times before he finally took it in. And then, as if in a 19th century novel, he went ashen. That I was indeed the author of the very important book it turned out he hadn't read, just read about in the New York Times Book Review a few months earlier, so confused the neat categories into which his world was sorted that he was stunned speechless -- for a moment, before he began holding forth again. Being women, we were politely out of earshot before we started laughing.
"My mother wanted us to understand that the tragedies of your life one day have the potential to be comic stories the next." - Nora Ephron
Ephron, who has had a lengthy career as a writer and more recently a film director, is the daughter of Phoebe Ephron, a playwright. Ephron says her mother's parting words before her premature death were "Take notes."
While putting on his jacket and mitts this morning, my son told me he had figured out a few things about narrative - so to speak.
"To have a story, you have to have a hero, and they have to do something," Nick said. "There has to be a sidekick, and there has to be a wise person. There has to be a villain." Slight, uncomfortable pause. "And there may or may not be a love interest."
Nick's in fifth grade now, and is reading quite a bit. The inspiration, though, he said came from Shrek.
There you have it. I'd say he's well set for everything from Joseph Campbell to Lethal Weapon.
I came across this last week: a handwritten outline that J.K. Rowling made while she was plotting out Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Looking at how she has organized her thoughts, I almost want to read the book again.
Another thought came to mind, though, and that's the story I'm trying to craft on my own. I'm now in the second in what's likely to be an undetermined (but probably much higher) number of drafts, and while I wrote an outline before I had a single chapter finished, I wish I had considered this kind of schematic. The plot of my novel - as it stands - happens with a period of a few months, and there are interlocking threads. I'm inclined to try this kind of a model when I have a few hours, to see if it might make reorganizing things that much easier.
Last week, I spent a week in a cabin - two of them actually. Martha and I took our son to Kilmory, a resort near Swift Current, for a weekend away from things. (It's hardly roughing it, with hot showers, comfy beds, insulated chalets and things like microwave ovens.)
The real reason for going is that I stayed on after Martha and Nick went back to town. I took part in what's called the Piper's Frith, a writers' retreat organized by the Literary Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador.
My purpose? To delve more deeply into my writing, particularly on the fiction side, and - to be precise - to find out if the documents I have stored on my laptop could feasibly be turned into an actual book. As I've discussed here and there, I started working a year ago on a novel. I finished a first draft not long after I went back to work at CBC in St. John's in early March, but quickly enough ran into a tough reality: it's very hard to write creatively when you have a dayjob (and a demanding one), and are a parent, too.
I came out of the Frith, though, with a new and better outlook on things. I was assigned to a group led by Jessica Grant, who wrote Come, Thou Tortoise, last year's Winterset winner and a terrific and hilarious book. Jessica is even funnier in person, and an inspiring writing coach. I'm also thankful for the advice and notes from our writing group; it was a surreal experience hearing them discuss characters I've created - characters I've told only my wife about - as if they were real people. That was one of the moments when the book came alive for me. The whole experience was clarifying.
So, now there's an imperative: Get 'er done.
It's going to take some time, and getting it published is going to be a whole other trial. But I can do this.
Meanwhile, I heartily recommend the Frith to anyone who wants to get more serious about their writing. I was joined by a group that came from across the country, with very different styles, goals and experiences, and left with some new friends and a richer appreciation for what we're all trying to achieve.
A little over a year ago, I noticed I was reading the word “curated” an awful lot as I kept up with trends on the web.
At first, it sounded like a fancy way of saying another word: “edited,” or even just “chosen.” As in, “That feature included some material that was well curated.”
I’ve actually seen the word recently in plenty of other contexts, from retailing to manufacturing to design. But the web is giving it a new cachet. Part of it is social media, where a platform like Tumblr – which invites users to create virtual scrapbooks of the material they encounter online – gives a great big bear-hug to the curating concept.
Gradually, I’ve changed my mind about the whole idea of curating. I still think it’s a bit of a trendy word, and I wonder what actual curators (the people who choose what we see in museums and art galleries, for instance) make of it.
But here’s where I see things moving, and why I think the word is becoming appropriate.
“Editing” itself is a vague kind of word. For some people, it means correcting spelling or grammar. It can also mean reworking, revising and improving text, or assembling a sequence from film or video. In my line of work, of online news, it involves adding value, from background details to video to suggestions for further reading.
This leads to what curating on the web means … I think. It means managing the vast amount of information that surrounds us, and we all know that pile will never, ever get smaller, and help users make the most of the time they’ve decided to spend with us.
Years ago, we used to use words like “gatekeeping” to describe what media websites did. That is, they chose what was worthy of making the cut, and what was not.
That’s still true, but social media and the evolution of web technologies are offering plenty of opportunities – as well as demands to keep pace.
Let’s face it: the volume of information that passes before us can be overwhelming. Then there comes the tangle of trying to locate the information we want or need.
Clay Shirky, an American writer who inherited a name that makes him sound like a character on a show like Futurama, coined a phrase I quite like. Asked to respond to how to deal with “information overload,” Shirky (above) reframed the problem, looking instead at what he called “filter failure.”
We expect a lot from search engines like Google. We expect the web to deliver what we want, when we want it, and we want our preferred sites to anticipate what we need before we know it.
Many of us also operate on that very human fallacy: if someone hasn’t told it to me by now, it couldn’t be that important. In the news business, that fallacy – entrenched among younger adults who never picked up the habit of reading a daily newspaper, for instance – is a killer obstacle.
Thus, the need for curating. Smart, expansive, engaging, informed curating.
As web journalism evolves, expect to see far more than the traditional inverted-pyramid style of storytelling. It’s going to have to be much more than that; our audiences are demanding not just the key details (skimming will become more prevalent than ever), but also the choice to delve deeper, if they choose.
Helping that evolution move along will fall to the curators … and you can me in that number, as much as reluctantly take on the trendy description.
Elsewhere this week
Google Map Maker For two years, Google’s Map Maker has been changing how we look at the world around us. Google Maps is the dominant online mapping application; this is the tool that anyone can use to customize results. It’s powerful, and not complicated.
How teens use phones The majority of North American teenagers have a cellphone, or have used one. How do they use it? This presentation by Flowtown will make you think … and wonder about what’s next with the mobile revolution.
This is Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She's on a list over at Lapham's Quarterly, which lists some well-known writers with the uppers, downers, alcohol choices and psychedlics, as appropriate, that they took to compose. To find out, check the list.
A week or two ago, I passed a milestone. As I've mentioned, I've been spending my days (but not my nights, at least, not yet) writing what I hope will turn out to be a published novel. I'm treating the process like a job: I get up in the morning, and after breakfast and getting my son to school, I go to the living room with a hot mug of coffee, and get to work.
To help keep track of things, and also to spur effort, I keep track of what I'm doing. Each day, I record the output (in terms of typed words) in a spreadsheet. I started doing this on Oct. 5, several weeks after I started writing the book, at least in a concerted way.
I've found it very helpful to set targets: that is, the number of words I expect I should be able to create in a given day. It's been a good incentive: on productive days, I really do feel like I'm making headway, and on less productive days (including some recent ones where I was stuck in a chapter that was unforgiving), I figured out what I needed to do: just keep moving.
So, earlier this month, I saw the "word count" total pass a marker of 100,000. That didn't mean I had written my 100,000th word - I did that weeks earlier, because I did not tabulate what I had written in August or September.
It also doesn't mean, necessarily, there are 100,000 in the manuscript, as it stands. Weeks into the process, I found it helpful - really helpful - to go back and rewrite some of what I've done. It may be my backrgound in journalism and editing, but I've always emphasized the importance of revision. This time, though, it's on a grand scale. Nor of course does it mean that the words are particularly good.
The clock is ticking on my unpaid leave from work: just six weeks to go. More and more, I'm counting up and counting down, trying to keep track of what's in my head and what's been typed.
I have a few, final tips for Christmas surfing, but feel free to clip this column for the moments when you’re about to enjoy some lazy, well-earned downtime in the days ahead. They’ll definitely work well past Christmas Day. (And have a good one, by the way.)
First, though, some advice on how to deal with those who’ve indulged too much during the season of high spirits.
Deflate The Elephant Have you noticed the ads from the LCBO – the Liquor Control Board of Ontario – on TV this month? The board has been buying lots of national airtime with spots based around the premise of the “elephant in the room” at this time of year, when a drunk friend or loved one decides to reach for the keys and head home. This is the companion site, which is worth reading before you have anyone over and the drinks start getting poured; you’ll find strategies for preventing drinking and driving, and possibly saving some lives.
Curtis Andrews The hirsute percussionist and all-round groovy guy has been on a roll lately, and not just because he seems to play with every cool outfit in St. John’s. Last week, he won the Atlantis Music Prize, sponsored by the St. John’s alternative paper the Scope, for album of the year, for his jazzy, worldbeat-inflected record The Offering of Curtis Andrews. Last month, he also picked up two major awards from MusicNL. You can learn about his music here (and sample the entire album, or, even better, buy it), and learn about his passions, including a plan to build a school in 2010 in Ghana.
Holiday Photo Maker From JibJab, the makers of funny videos and the perennial Elf Yourself app, comes this feature that allows you to plop headshots of you and yours into all kinds of seasonal settings. A head’s up: some of these are definitely not kid-appropriate, so look through the many options first if you’re looking for an activity with small kids! If there’s a new camera under the tree, knock yourself out here afterwards.
Mashup Arts In a similar vein, here’s an entire site that allows you to craft cards, messages, etc., for holidays, birthdays or practically any occasion. Upload some pics (it connects with Facebook and Flickr), drag and drop some materials, including comic-style balloons, and zap, you’re done. A nice way to add some pizzazz to your next message.
Canadian emergency code alerts I’m sure you’ll recall the colour-coded terror alert system the U.S. government unveiled in 2002 (you know, red means “severe”, green means “low”). This tongue-in-cheek feature adapts the system to the Canadian environment. Hence, green – the lowest threat level – means “Stanley Cup playoffs on, majority government, roll-up-the-rim contest in progress.” You can imagine what happens as things get worse.
Random paragraph generator Trying to write something, and finding yourself staring at a blinking cursor or a maddeningly white piece of paper? I’ve been working on a pretty large writing project lately (a book, or at least what I hope will turn into one), and have had a few awful moments along the way. This tool can trigger a new train of thought, or inspire a way out of writer’s block. Or, it may just amuse you by presenting weirdly random collections of words.
Christmas in the Sixties My buddies at the CBC’s digital archives put this collection of TV and clips together. If you’re about my vintage, you may find it fascinating or striking to see and hear how Christmas was celebrated, and described, during the era of aluminum trees (the Charlie Brown Christmas special didn’t make that up).
John Gushue is a writer in St. John's, and is currently on leave from his job with CBC News in St. John's. John is on Twitter right here.
Dot Dot Dot is Morse code for the letter 'S,' the full message Guglielmo Marconi claimed to have received atop Signal Hill in St. John's in 1901. It ushered in the age of telecommunications. My maternal grandfather worked as a telegraph operator for Canadian Marconi on Signal Hill for many years.
As well, I have a habit of overusing the ellipsis when I write ... as frequent readers might notice.