Beautiful Writing

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Art

"A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us" - Franz Kafka

“A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us” – Franz Kafka

I know that life is busy and hard, and that there’s crushing pressure to just settle down and get a real job and khaki pants and a haircut. But don’t. Please don’t. Please keep believing that life can be better, brighter, broader, because of the art that you make. Please keep demonstrating the courage that it takes to swim upstream in a world that prefers putting away for retirement to putting pen to paper, that chooses practicality over poetry, that values you more for going to the gym that going to the deepest places in your soul. Please keep making art for people ilk me, people who need the magic and imagination and honesty of great art to make the day-to-day world a little more bearable.

And if, for whatever reason, you’ve stopped–stopped believing in your voice, stopped fighting to find the time–start today.

–Shauna Niequist, Cold Tangerines 

 

We Used to Wait

Remember writing letters?

Remember actually sitting down, writing a letter, mailing it, and then waiting for a letter in return?

When I was a kid, I used to have several pen pals. Remember those, even? One was a girl I met at the campground swimming pool in West Virginia, one was through the church Calvinettes program, one was from Israel, one was from Honduras …

Anyway, I had a lot of pen pals because I loved to write, and honestly, there’s nothing better than getting things in the mail.

These days, letter writing is a bit antiquated but still cherished by the truly nostalgic, like listening to music on vinyl or listening to the game on the radio.

"I'm afraid I can't. I'm writing letters before dinner" [Elizabeth McGovern as Lady Cora Crawley in Downton Abbey. Photo courtesy of google image search]

“I’m afraid I can’t. I’m writing letters before dinner” [Elizabeth McGovern as Lady Cora Crawley in Downton Abbey. Photo courtesy of google image search]

Years ago, if you wanted to communicate something to someone, you would write them a letter; if it was urgent, you would send a telegram. As Win Butler sings, we used to wait. It’s so weird to think about. Sometimes I remember being in grade school and high school and actually talking to my friends on the phone.

Now, if we want to communicate with someone, you shoot off a text. You send a Facebook message and their smartphone will notify them. Instantly. Literally the second it happens. I rarely talk on the phone unless I’m talking to my parents, in-laws, or Rogers. To have to wait to talk to someone now feels inhumane, unjust. We’ve become accustomed to immediacy, and I think we might have lost something because of it …

Now our lives are changing fast.

I hope that something pure can last.

grocery shopping, old-timey style [photo courtesy of google image search]

grocery shopping, old-timey style [photo courtesy of google image search]

The other day at work, my co-workers and I were discussing the advent of self-service grocery stores in North America with the first Piggly Wiggly opening in Memphis, Tennessee in 1916. Before the shiny super centres we have today, people would have to go to one store, give the grocer a list, and wait for him to collect your items.

Can you imagine if we went back to that way of living now? What would extreme couponers who shop for the apocalypse do with simply eggs, bread, milk, and cheese? How would they live without their twenty-five jars of Cheese Whiz?

I’m being facetious, but you get my point.

I was telling my husband about our conversation about old world grocers and modern day grocery stores, and he joked that I would never survive back then, knowing how impatient I can be. Probably, but then again, I wouldn’t be Twenty-first Century Alison impatiently tapping my foot at the grocer’s, willing him to move faster so I could hurry home and watch Downton Abbey on Netflix and live-tweet it and text my best friend about it.

I would be 1900s Alison, who takes the hour-long walk to the grocer, and writes religiously in her journal, and sends her best friend ten page-long letters. It was a simpler time, and I would be a simpler person because of it.

Edwardian Alison is kind of a babe [photo courtesy of google image search]

Edwardian Alison is kind of a babe [photo courtesy of google image search]

You know I’m not a fan of negative, we’re-going-to-hell, Luddite mindset, because technology has done a lot of miraculous and constructive things. I’m not saying technology is the devil, because it isn’t. What I am saying, however, is that we don’t really know how to wait anymore.

We see waiting as a bad thing … like, really, I have to wait five minutes in line at the grocery store? How dare you inconvenience me in this way! I have things to do! I’m doing stuff, Lori. Things.

Sometimes (all the time) I get impatient when I text someone and they don’t text me back immediately. I can’t wait two minutes to receive a text message, but 1900s Alison waited days and weeks to receive letters from loved ones. I think I need to learn from her.

There are some big changes coming up for my husband and I, changes that make me feel stressed (now our lives are changing fast). Last night I was feeling extremely impatient and wanting to have things settled right now. My lovely, laid-back husband reminded me of the Arcade Fire song.

In other words, wait. Be patient. Waiting can be challenging, yes, but it can also teach you more than if you received everything you wanted right away.

We want to see results, and preferably instantly. But God works in secret and with a divine patience.

– Henri J.M. Nouwen

My cousin and dear friend, who is also experiencing a lot of changes in her life, recently had the following as her status on Facebook:

This year my goal is to live life in the slow lane

I want to be right there with her. There’s something beautiful in being still and knowing that He is God.

Advice from a Dear Friend

I’ve discovered there’s a beauty in my spirit only released when I write. Even if I’m the only one to glimpse that glory, it’s something worth releasing. You have that same beauty. Set aside the doubt’s and embrace the truth – you are a writer and writers write — my friend Miss Eves

photo courtesy of google image search

photo courtesy of google image search

Writer’s Block: A Journey

story of my life - pun intended [photo courtesy of google image search]

story of my life – pun intended [photo courtesy of google image search]

It’s a grey and rainy November, the kind of day where the afternoon shuffles along, offering you the perfect opportunity to sit down and write, like I’ve been meaning to do since forever.

Easier said than done!

It’s been almost 5 months since our wedding, so I can’t use the busyness of wedding planning as an excuse anymore. Our work schedules are very different, so in the early evening, I have about three hours to myself before my husband gets home from work. I had fully intended to use those hours writing.

But then I started getting into Mad Men. Screw you, Don Draper!

it's all your fault [photo courtesy of google image search]

it’s all your fault [photo courtesy of google image search]

And then there’s Facebook, and Twitter, and Tumblr, and BuzzFeed, and you’ve got yourself a million little modern distractions.

When the weather was warmer this past summer, I would sit outside with my notebook and pen and write. I thought of a pretty neat concept for a children’s series that I was excited about, and I remember having my parents over for a barbecue and telling them all about my raison d’être.

As fast as inspiration comes, it goes.

Writing is hard!

Sometimes I wonder, in true self-doubting, navel-gazing, INFJ fashion (more on that in blogs to come!), if I’m more interested in the idea of being a writer than in actually writing.

It’s so easy to say you’re a writer but actually sitting down and writing something is another story altogether.

if i had one of these, would i be able to actually write? [photo courtesy of weheartit]

if i had one of these, will i then be an authentic writer? [photo courtesy of weheartit]

I’ll come up with every excuse in the book:

  • I need to finish watching Season Six of Mad Men (most popular)
  • Everything I write sucks (another fan favourite)
  • I write/edit for a living so when I come home from work, I have nothing left to give
  • The last thing I want to look at when I get home is my computer screen (that’s why God invented pens and paper!)
  • I’m not as good as ______________, so why bother?
  • I’ll never be as good as ______________, so why bother?
  • I’m 28, so clearly my dream of being a writer is never going to happen because the “moment” has passed
  • All the good ideas have been taken
  • I’m not in university anymore, therefore I’m not as inspired as I used to be (many a poem was written during lectures, shhhh!)
  • Growing up, I was always told that I was a good writer. I let writing become my identity, the only thing I was good at, so when I write anything at all, it has to be perfect or I’ll suffer an identity crisis.*

Excuses, excuses. I know I just have to turn off my brain (or tune into my right brain exclusively), and just write something. Anything.

Speaking of BuzzFeed, here’s some good advice from Real Life Writers, as well as a funny list on the expectations vs. reality of being a writer.

So other writers out there in the blogosphere: how do you conquer writer’s block?

* It occurred to me that I’ve written about writer’s block before. I win.

 

 

Detective Ambrose Grey, a Dutch Bachelor and His Russian Bride: A Scrabble Story

My cousins introduced me to a wonderful writing exercise. All you have to do is have a rousing game of Scrabble with your friends. Afterwards, use all the words from the Scrabble game to form a short story. It’s definitely harder than it looks, but it’s a great way to get the creative juices flowing.

Below is the short story I wrote from the words of our New Year’s Eve Scrabble game. It’s the first mystery I’ve ever written, and I’ll admit I’m rather pleased with the end result!

Here were the words I had to use:

[Dreary, buds, brink, dug, Mister, we, man, meer, bee, money, scar, apace, foe, gents, teal, or, xi, sass, hood, hi, rug, tow, jet, red, quiz, bail, coal, flog, nude, pi, zone, qi]

New Year's Eve's Scrabble Game

The scene: a dreary April day, just before the darling buds had burst with colour, and the sky hung like a wet blanket above the countryside skirting London.

Our reluctant detective, Ambrose Grey, a rather surly aristocratic man on the brink of middle-age, had just dug his spade into wet soil when his bumbling butler came rushing from the cottage.

Mister Grey,” he sputtered at his employer’s bent back. “We are needed in London. There’s been a letter; a man from Meer in the Netherlands has, among other things, had his prized bee collection stolen and he’s offering you an extravagant amount of money to have it recovered.”

“Tell him I’ve retired, Simms” Grey muttered, wiping his mud-caked hands on his knees. “Our last case gave me this, and I don’t intend to take on any more cases whilst enjoying my retirement in the country.”

He lifted up his damp pant leg to reveal an ugly scar crisscrossing the flesh of his left ankle.

Although Simms was well acquainted with the procurement of the scar and could recall the events of the case as though it had happened yesterday—running apace with highwaymen on horseback, the nobleman’s beautiful wife held captive, the brilliant scuffle with the foe in which both wit and physical bravado were adequately demonstrated, the infinitesimal turn of the head at the lady’s cry, the wicked glint of the brandished pocketknife—he knew his employer would never turn down a good case, especially if there was a handsome reward for its successful resolution.

“As you wish, sir.”

Simms bowed and left Grey jabbing vicious holes into the soil, all the while knowing the words that would come out of the gentleman’s mouth before they were spoken:

“Get the gents to bring the carriage round the front, Simms. We’ll leave for London in the morning.”

Next morning, as Grey’s carriage jostled from bucolic pastures to the dank fog that snaked through London’s narrow streets, the dapper curmudgeon pressed his butler for the details of the case whilst fussily refolding his teal kerchief.

“Johannes Van der Splaat, who is distantly related to William the Orange, has especially requested your services upon hearing of your deftness in handling Lord Winterfield’s case. He’s an eccentric collector of unusual things; his taxidermic bees being just one of the many oddities. It seems as though the bees are the straw that broke the camel’s back, as it were, amongst Van der Splaat’s stolen goods.”

A pause, in which Simms took a moment to adjust his wire-rimmed glasses.

“Do go on,” Grey urged gruffly. “Or shall I provide my own context with which to solve this case?”

Unperturbed, Simms continued.

“It would benefit my good sir to know that it was not in fact Van der Splaat himself who wrote us the letter, but rather; a lady, or so I shall deduce from the feminine hand …”

From the inside of his suit jacket Simms pulled a letter bearing a rather peculiar seal—that of a Ξ.

“It’s Xi, the fourteenth letter of the Greek alphabet,” Simms explained lamely as Grey glowered at him.

“I wasn’t born yesterday.”

With no small degree of sass, Grey took the letter and noticed the fine hand in which it was painstakingly written, the swooping penmanship that flourished and twirled on the paper.

In language that favoured an early-Romantic style bordering on melodramatic, the letter’s author outlined the crimes recently committed against Van der Splaat: stolen family jewels, injured henchmen, butlers suddenly fallen ill, missing bee collections and other small items around his household misplaced.

The letter concluded abruptly without a signature. Even stranger, Grey’s sensitive nose prickled with familiarity at a scent that emanated from the paper. His memory reeled back to a time long ago, to a fledgling lawyer, a bookish girl, a promising romance.

The scent of secrets spun over decades.

“Tell me, does Van der Splaat have a wife?” Grey asked, brow furrowed.

Simms twisted his moustachioed lips into a smile.

“As of six months ago. They’ve just returned from their European honeymoon tour. He’s quite advanced in years, Van der Splaat, and from my research, a rather thick-headed and tight-fisted old bachelor with an extensive and prestigious educational background and an exorbitant fortune.”

“Is his new bride a society woman?”

“Her past appears to be grand, yet somewhat tragic. Her parents were aristocrats from an old Russian family with close ties to the czar. They passed away in a train accident when she was a girl and she’s been living in London with a great-aunt ever since.”

Turning up his hood and looking out the window, Grey’s finger absentmindedly traced the seal on the mysterious letter, his mind turning over all things frugal Dutch bachelor and Russian aristocracy.

Hi. Mister Van der Splaat is not in. Perhaps you should call Thursday.”

Her heavily accented voice was low and her eyes remained fixed on the ornate rug beneath her slippered feet as the detective and his sidekick were escorted into the lavish drawing room.

Mrs. Darya Trotsky Van der Splaat, the Dutchman’s young bride, was clearly not acquainted with the social conventions befitting polite English society, a point Grey noted with an eyebrow raised to Simms.

The tow-headed lady was dressed in delicate silks of the deepest red that enhanced bright the flush that had spread on her fair skin.

“I beg your pardon, ma’am,” Grey bowed once he had recovered from Mrs. Van der Splaat’s brusque manner. “Mister Ambrose Grey and Mister Elliot Simms at your service.”

Her head lifted just slightly in acknowledgment.

“We received a letter written on behalf of Mister Van der Splaat regarding some recent … events.”

He held out the letter for the lady to examine and noticed the brief look of recognition that passed over her face with inner triumph. The case was as good as solved and he would be back to puttering aimlessly in his country garden as soon as one could say secret society.

“Mister Van der Splaat is not in,” she repeated. “Perhaps you should call …”

“Thursday, yes, you mentioned that,” Grey interrupted impatiently. “But perhaps you would like to answer some preliminary questions I have that need not be answered by the victim himself but rather, someone on the inside … someone who would know the whereabouts of personal items belonging to the victim and the daily goings-on of a household.”

Simms could barely hide his surprise at his employer’s forthright manner. He could discern the suggestive tone that had crept into Grey’s voice, a tone that usually preluded a solved case. Yet the gentleman hadn’t even met the victim nor interviewed any suspects. This was highly unusual indeed.

“If you are going to quiz me, I’ll simply ask my staff to remove you from my household.”

The lady’s mouth quivered, belying her cold composure.

As if he hadn’t heard her, Grey busied himself by stuffing tobacco into his pipe and taking a stroll around the drawing room.

“You see, I have some questions for you, Darya Trotsky—” The lady bristled at the omission of her married name, “—questions ranging from the obvious, such as: why should a pretty young Russian woman care to marry an eccentric Dutch bachelor for any other reason but his reputed fortune and resources … and the imperceptible, such as: why should said Dutch bachelor’s new wife semi-anonymously post a letter to a famous detective to solve the mystery of a series of seemingly random crimes and then act most unwelcoming at his timely arrival?”

Her mouth opened and closed, then opened and closed again. She gazed imploringly at the stolid figure of Simms, as if by intuiting her confusion he would somehow bail her out, but he remained impassive.

Grey was up to something and did not appear to be bothered in the least when a young maid, clearly schooled in cheap seat theatrics, burst into the drawing room, announcing in an exaggerated Russian accent that all the coal from the household had somehow disappeared over the course of a day.

“Really, Darya Trotsky, you ought to flog your help for such a dreadful performance,” Grey sighed, lifting his pipe to his lips and sucking noisily.

“Ow!” the maid cried as she attempted to escape what would become the scene of unveiling and tripped over a decorative ottoman instead.

“Just as I suspected!”

Grey rushed over to the prone maid and pointed his pipe at her nude ankle, where a jet-black irregular marking could be seen. As Simms joined him, he saw what it was, a π.

Pi,” he whispered, and Grey nodded enthusiastically.

“Your cover is blown!” he proclaimed and approached the indignant lady of the house, whose chin was now lifted as she stared him directly in the eyes.

“To repeat what I said to Simms just this morning … I wasn’t born yesterday, and if you wanted to fabricate an amusing little detective story, you should have contacted my much less competent and completely less attractive contemporary, Sherlock Holmes.”

“He wasn’t available,” the maid offered, and the lady shot her a reproachful look.

“Of course not!” Grey resumed his leisurely pipe smoking and began to pace the length of the room. “Poor chap has probably fallen captive to the opiates once again.”

He paused, shifting his eyes from Simms, the lady, and the maid, aware that he had everyone’s rapt attention.

“But I must commend you for the lengths you’ve gone to infiltrate the Western Europe zone, marrying that crusty old Dutch bachelor like that.”

Now Simms was utterly bewildered and could bear to be kept in the dark no longer.

“Please, sir!” he pleaded, and Grey stopped him with a dismissive wave of the hand and commenced his soliloquy.

“Allow me to illuminate you, dear Simms. You see, a number of years ago, when I was a young and dashing fellow with a promising career in law, there was someone whose company I enjoyed more than yours: a young lady by the name of ‘Alice Grave.’ A serious, bluestocking kind of girl who I dreamed of one day marrying … that is, until my sheer sense of intuition caused me to believe that everything was not as it would seem.

She claimed to be an earl’s daughter from Yorkshire but I was not so easily convinced. If I had been a cheery, trusting fellow I would have married her and living in Yorkshire right now instead of biding my time in London, but alas, I had to follow my suspicious nature and it directed me to a highly peculiar secret society …”

Simms mouth dropped open and he began sputtering, as he was wont to do when Grey so deftly unveiled a mystery. A glance at the two silent ladies confirmed that his employer was speaking the truth.

“A secret society, dear Simms, comprised of remarkable young ladies who’d put the boys at Oxford to shame should they ever be allowed admission. I stalked Alice for months without her knowledge and soon found out what went on when she met other ladies for tea or bridge. An intricate web of London’s finest minds: mathematics enthusiasts, fluent speakers of Greek and Latin, young women who could breezily discuss the Chinese philosophy of Qi with their tea.

From the day I discovered this society to the present, I’ve been tracking their progress, and they’ve gone from merely meeting to taking action: spreading themselves throughout Britain and Europe, making ties with foreign men and committing all sorts of petty crimes on themselves to create diversions, diversions that would enable them to raid their husbands’ libraries, study their subject of choice, and receive the sort of education they were never allowed to obtain, because of their sex.”

At this conclusion the lady “Darya Trotsky” appeared as lifeless as a rag doll.

“Consider it a novice mistake that one of your help mailed me with your secret society’s stationary, I who have known of your ilk for awhile, in an attempt to create more diversions and make inroads in the Netherlands’ educational system.”

With uncharacteristic good humour he bade the ladies adieu, summoning Simms and singing, “One for me and none for Holmes! One for me and none for Holmes”

When the gentleman had gone, the lady turned to her fellow conspirator and wordlessly they went to the bookshelf. Pushing it open, they stepped into a hidden room.

The eyes of twenty young women were on them.

“They know,” the lady said. “Now the real work can begin.”

Awake My Soul

Long have you timidly waded

Holding a plank by the shore,

Now I will you to be a bold swimmer,

To jump off in the midst of the sea,

Rise again, nod to me, shout,

And laughingly dash with your hair.

–Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

Now I will you to be a bold swimmer ...

Darling,

Who stole your passion? Who extinguished the light in your eyes? What accumulation of tragic events and dreary circumstances have led to the fire being doused from your soul?

Knees to pavement, you’re shuffling along. Pebbles, sharp gravel, hardened gum stick to your hands and feet. Inhale dust. You smile gratefully, dog-like, when someone throws you a bone. Greedily you scavenge, bury it in dirt. Miser’s glint. Empty shell. Walking dead.

But my dear, you were born with a song. Out of the darkness of the womb you came singing it, eyes flooded with light. As a child your song was your rhythm. Hopscotch jump, twirls in front of mommy’s mirror, bathtime boogies. The song that breathed you into being pumped blood into your soul. Every tiny step, from the trembling first, was a note. Shadow puppet theatre, construction paper jungles, Crayola landscapes. You were all aglow, colourful, glistening with the joy and passion of life.

But life … it got to you, as it does us all. Somewhere in your history, someone told you to please shut up, I’m busy. Sit still. Be quiet. Settle down. An elder’s reprimand or any degree of abuse or the weighty sadness and injustice of the world told you your song was too loud or different or not good enough and you learned to curb it, hide it, change it, destroy it.

Of course you grew up and matured and let go of certain things and became tall and capable and beautiful. But your song dulled into a whisper only sung in the privacy of the shower or scarcely heard above the clink of dishes in the sink. You learned to bow. Acquiesce. Pull your pretty petals back into yourself closer and tighter.

You wake up dreading the day. You wake up to grey skies: is this all there is? and pull the covers over your head. You wake up to blinding sunlight and resent the bouncy step and cheery hellos of everyone around you. You eat and eat but are never full. Exercise is a form of torture. Work is a punch-in, punch-out process. People are a nuisance, traffic is a nightmare, finding joy in anything is not as easy as finding the trouble.

Afraid to make waves, you timidly hold your plank by the shore, mouth zipped shut. Zombie slumber.

And it is costing you everything.

the sun is out, the sky is blue, it's beautiful and so are you

Darling, I will you to wake up and dive in to the big sea of life. Find your song and sing it like a songbird waiting for morning. It will come. It will come. I urge you to open yourself up to the grand orchestra and let it strike a chord right down to your core.

Prophesy to yourself: Dry bones, I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life.

You have no excuse. Circumstances may have hurt you, events may have beaten you down, people may have crushed your spirit but I say you are still alive. You breathe, you live, and thus, you have a song just waiting to be sung. Your dragging feet can dance. Your shy whispering voice can sing glorious melodies. Your heart can beat and feel excitement and love and joy.

You know this. There are moments, tiny moments, that make your eyes shine and your soul leap within itself and the world slightly shimmers for a second. Extend those seconds into a lifetime of awareness. Let love unveil your passion in abundance, let it illuminate your way through the dredge and darkness like glowing lamps in a forest.

And sing, baby, the song that has always been in your heart.