Archive for March, 2011

My escape to a cabin just south of Atlin last week was a huge success. I read on the deck in the sun (in my sleeping bag – it’s not quite warm enough for sunbathing yet) by day, and wrote at night; I finished Jonathan Raban’s excellent Passage to Juneau and got a functional 4000-word story draft together. I don’t suppose I can burn half a tank of gas and spend two nights in tourist accommodation every time I have a story to write, but it’s certainly something I’ll plan to do again at some point.


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I just booked two nights in a little log cabin a couple of hours south of Whitehorse, complete with glacier views, a woodstove, and — crucially — an electrical outlet for my laptop. I’ve got a bunch of writing I’m aiming to get done in a short time span, so I figured I’d fashion my own little retreat.

Self-imposed writing seclusion is an experiment I’ve been meaning to try for awhile. I’m headed out later this week; here’s hoping I come back on the weekend a few thousand words richer.

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I picked up this little booklet on a whim at the public library last week. It’s the transcript of a Q&A with Stegner, Pulitzer-winning novelist and the founder of Stanford’s creative writing program, and in the same way that fiction writing advice often crosses genre boundaries and offers help to nonfiction writers, this book — aimed at writing teachers — is equally thought-provoking for any writer looking to improve their work.

I’ll likely post a few quotes from it over the next couple weeks. To start with, here’s Stegner on that essential question: Can writing be taught?

[T]here are limited things that a teacher can do, apart from encouraging the environment of interest and criticism within which writing can take place. How can anyone “teach” writing, when he himself, as a writer, is never sure what he is doing?

Every book that anyone sets out on is a voyage of discovery that may discover nothing. Any voyager may be lost at sea, like John Cabot. Nobody can teach the geography of the undiscovered. All he can do is encourage the will to explore, plus impress upon the inexperienced a few of the dos and don’ts of voyaging…

In my experience, the best teaching that goes on in a college writing class is done by members of the class, upon one another. But it is not automatic, and the teacher is not unimportant. His job is to manage the environment, which may be as hard a job as for God to manage the climate.

I’m only partway through and I’ll be interested to read what’s left — I spent my high school years enrolled in an intensive creative writing program and I’ve always thought that its greatest value lay in its ability to expose me to new writing styles and genres and to make me attempt them all, and then to force me to edit the results mercilessly.

No single piece of advice from any of my teachers sticks out: Mostly I remember being forced to read, read, read; write, write, write; edit, edit, edit. It wasn’t always a fun process, but it certainly got me writing more — and eventually, writing better — than I ever would have on my own time.

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Barbados and its Beaches

This short piece I wrote about the best beaches in Barbados was just published in the Ottawa Citizen and the Vancouver Sun. I’m off to Barbados again in April — lucky me!

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I’m slowly working my way through Raban’s Passage to Juneau, a travel narrative about a sailing voyage from Seattle through the Inside Passage to Alaska. Early in the book, he reveals the role that his boat played before the trip:

Though I lived in a house overlooking the canal, and could see from the upstairs deck whether or not the boat still floated, I usually spent several weeks a year, and sometimes months, aboard the ketch. When a concentrated bout of reading was called for, or a wrong chapter needed righting, or when my Furies dogged me to distraction, I’d take off for the nearby scribble of islands and let go the anchor. With the floor sashaying underfoot, the chain grumbling on the sea-bottom, and the view from the boat’s windows revolving slowly on the tide, I found the equilibrium that I was prone to lose on the unstable land. On winter mornings, the mud foreshore hoar with frost, forlorn gulls circling under a misty sky, I’d fire up the heater, light the lamps, and work with an intense single-mindedness that evaded me at home. The creaks and groans, the smell of paraffin and diesel, were conducive to thinking and remembering. Afloat, the boat was an unplace — a bubble world, off at a useful tangent to the insistent here-and-now of the American shoreline.

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