Learning from readers

At one time I devoured magazines about writing. They provided something I could find nowhere else. Even today I’ll sometimes buy one, though they tend to lie untouched at the bottom of my reading pile. I think that I’m still drawn to them because of a hunger to return to the basics of writing and storytelling. I think that I’m always trying to reclaim that first spark of inspiration that made me want to write.

Writing is a solitary craft, and friends who don’t share the interest quickly tire of the obsessions of the budding writer. Those writers’ magazines—and now the ubiquitous blogs that replicate all of the same themes—fill the need for that conversation. And they provide the basic, specialized information a young writer needs. There is also the simple truth that reading about writing inspires one to write.

But that endless parade “researching your historical story” and “how to get an agent’s attention” quickly grows tedious. The blogs and magazines are big on lists: “ten steps to successful revision;” “nine steps to a successful query;” “thirteen rules for writing dialogue.” Let’s face it—it doesn’t take long before you’ve learned all that you can from this sort of thing. The writer never stops learning—never—but one soon outgrows these introductory comments.

Of course I still find inspiration in reading about writing. I return again and again to A Passion For Narrative, by Jack Hodgins, A Writer’s Notebook, by Somerset Maugham, the essay “On Fairy-Stories,” by J.R.R. Tolkien, and a dozen others. These sorts of things take one back to the basics of writing, but not in the same way. This is more simplicity as elegance, the basics of a mature style—not basic writing in the sense of what first drove the creative spark.

This week I spent a couple of hours talking about writing with a group of talented Grade Six and Seven students. We talked about storytelling, the writing life, and about stories they had written to a premise I set for them.

I often write for readers of this age—though in this context they are readers as potential writers. They hold the answer to that basic question of what initially creates a storyteller. For them, writing is still about reading, still purely for the love of stories. Their creative writing is uncluttered by technique and preconceptions. It is still strongly driven by a desire to create the sort of stories they love to read.

I talked to the group about how finding inspiration in great stories was still true for even the best writers. I told the class that reading tales such as Treasure Island and Moonfleet inspired my friend Iain Lawrence to write his sea stories for young readers. Coincidentally, this week I also read the wonderful When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead. It is even more clearly inspired by another great childhood favourite of mine—A Wrinkle In Time, by Madeleine L’Engle.

Since then I’ve been thinking about the nature of reading from a writer’s perspective. About how books feed the passion, and help us to overcome what can often be a challenging task. As a result I have indeed just revisited that initial spark of inspiration. I learned from these readers that I need to read even more, and redouble my efforts to tell stories as well as the storytellers who inspire me.

As much as I love writing for young adult readers, I’ve realized over time that I also tremendously enjoy talking to them about writing. The real question is whether they learn as much from me as I learn from them.

Posted in Blog | Leave a comment

UFOs from Oak Island

Turning from the subject of UFO origin, we will now indulge in our last item of speculation as a purely intellectual exercise and rephrase the question: Did someone bury something on Oak Island that they did not want anyone to ever recover? as: Does Oak Island represent the hidden and well protected installation of a subaqueous entity frequently referred to as UFOs?

If we even scantily accept as possible the suggestions that extra-terrestrial vehicles manned by subaqueous entities come and go, to and from the earth, and use the bottom of the seas as their operating grounds or the suggestion that an underwater civilization exists in parallel with our own, we can easily imagine an intricate system of caverns beneath Oak Island functioning as a subterranean “outpost” or for that matter, the center for an extra-terrestrial operation.

William S. Crooker, The Oak Island Quest (Lancelot Press, 1978).

Posted in Blog | Leave a comment

Beneath the northern sea

A Flabellina verrucosa nudibranch slowly makes its way across a rocky wall, seeking its next meal. (John Rawlings Photo)

Becoming friends with John Rawlings made me remember my childhood fascination with life beneath the sea.

I tell stories about life at sea, or by the sea. Stories of ships and shipwrecks, lighthouses, sailors, and coastal people who risk their lives at sea. Through these eyes what lay beneath the sea became, in my mind, a horrifying thing. It was cold and dark. It conjured images of death.

It wasn’t always that way. As a kid I devoured books about sunken treasure and life beneath the sea. It started with Captain Haddock and Tintin, and progressed through Edward Ellsberg and Jacques Cousteau and Edward Roe Snow.

The way this played in my imagination had long faded by the time I met John. In words and pictures John described a world I didn’t know but should. It was almost just outside the harbour. I’ve passed back and forth over these waters in all sorts of boats. I’d never truly imagined what lay beneath me.

Its bright blue color in vivid contrast with surrounding orange anemones, a male kelp greenling (Hexagrammos decagrammus), stares back at the camera lens as John floats by in the current. (John Rawlings Photo)

The moment I put my face into the water, I knew that we were in for a wondrous dive—even near the surface the rocky face of the wall was literally coated with color and life. As we descended the wall, the invertebrate life became thicker and thicker—almost seeming to be in layers. Giant acorn barnacles were present in large numbers, their tendrils fanning out into the now fading current. Huge swaths of bright orange plumose anemones appeared like giant strips between patches of their fluorescent white “cousins”—reminding us of the patterns seen in the orange/white creamsicles we enjoyed as children. Yellow, red, orange, and white patches of encrusting sponge covered the rocks, making the scene look like a haphazard quilt. Through all of this “stationary” color darted tiny hermit crabs and shrimps of various species, their rapid scurrying movements catching my eye as we slowly descended down the wall and moved further up the Narrows, the slight current sweeping us along. As my eyes swept the ledges, the bright fluorescent red, orange and blue colors of a Puget Sound king crab suddenly burst into view when the beam of my light touched it. I managed to get off a quick portrait shot of it before the current carried me away.

John Rawlings, Advanced Diver Magazine

John is Chief Staff Writer at Advanced Diver Magazine. Talking to a diver that experienced, one who has truly explored the oceans of the world, I was surprised by his passion for the undersea life just beyond my doorstep. I suppose that I’ve always thought of those things being somewhere else, far away from my familiar world.

John started diving because of an accident. After two tours of duty in the Korean DMZ, he was back in the US at Fort Lewis when he was seriously hurt in a truck accident that killed two of his fellow soldiers. “I was in the Madigan Army Medical Center, learning how to walk again,” John told me, “and as part of the treatment they had me swimming –which bored me to no end. Then one of the guys in my infantry unit put up a sign that said, ‘If you want to learn how to dive, 25 bucks.’ That sounds cheap now, but it was a lot of money back then. But I did it, in Gig Harbor by Tacoma, and I knew as soon as I put my mask in the water that this was it.”

John was certified as a diver in 1975. He’s been diving all over the world, but his passion is the Pacific Northwest. That’s why Prince Rupert caught his attention.

“I was attracted to Prince Rupert because so much of it has not been dived,” John says. “In most places around that area, if it’s been dived at all it’s been by commercial divers looking for sea cucumbers, or sea urchins, or whatever, and they go down 40 or 50 feet to get what they’re after and that’d be it. So I was looking for what we call virgin dive sites. And what we got was just mind-blowing. One place, Watts Narrows, is a very narrow channel between two small islands. The tide normally runs through there at about four or five knots, so you have to dive at slack tide, but once we were in there we were just blown away by life and colour. And there must be hundreds if not thousands of places just like that waiting for divers around Prince Rupert. In my opinion diving is a major untapped resource for Prince Rupert.”

John visited Prince Rupert with dive partner Josh Smith, spent several days with Mike and Almudena Miles at Oceanwild Nature Expeditions, and his six-page story “Gateway to the Wilderness: Prince Rupert Expedition” appeared in Issue #32 of Advanced Diver last fall.

John’s amazing photos, and the passion for undersea life that ebbed through a series of great meals and long conversations, opened a window onto a new world. Because of that old fascination, it created one of the rare moments when I truly remember the feeling of a child’s sense of discovery.

This is what John calls a “salad shot.” At lower left, a crimson or “dreadlock” anemone (Cribrinopsis fernaldi); from top to bottom the larger anemones are painted or "Christmas” anemones (Urticia crassicornis). The smaller anemones throughout the photo are brooding anemones (Epiactis lisbethae), which are named for their ability to spring forth young from their stalks. At center left is a clump of red soft coral, aka "Sea Strawberry" (Gersemia rubiformis). Directly beneath the large anemone at top right is a graceful decorator crab (Oregonia gracilis) that has stuck a couple of clumps of red sponge onto its shell. The entire scene is also enshrouded by yellow and white encrusting sponges. Almost hidden at the centre of the photo is a tiny gray and white scalyhead sculpin (Artedius harringtoni), a beautiful little fish that can adapt its colour to its surroundings. (John Rawlings Photo)

Posted in Blog | Leave a comment

The Miser’s Ghost

All of you, old and young, know the story I’m about to tell. But the moral of this tale cannot be retold too often. Remember that behind it is the terrible lesson of an avenging God who commands the rich to be charitable.

It was New Year’s Eve in the year of Our Lord 1858.

It was dry and biting cold.

The highway along the north bank of the St Lawrence River from Montreal to Berthier lay covered by a thick coat of snow, fallen before Christmas.

The roads were smooth as a Venetian looking-glass. You should have seen how the sons of the rich farmers of the river parishes loved to spur on their frisky horses, racing like the wind to the happy sound of the bells on their silvery harnesses.

“The Miser’s Ghost,” Honoré Beaugrand (1848-1906). Translated from the French by Alberto Manguel. In Alberto Manguel, ed., The Oxford Book of Canadian Ghost Stories (Oxford University Press, 1990).

Posted in Blog | Leave a comment

BC Packers

You should have seen us this summer when we were really busy; loads of two hundred thousand pounds a day for ten, twelve days. Then the blood is up, everybody is into it.

There was a time when this was the biggest fish freezing operation in the world. There’s a bigger plant in Sweden now, and the canning operation at the co-op is bigger with more modern, efficient equipment. But this is sort of a friendly place; most people who come to work have friends or relatives here.

Prince Rupert: cold storage worker, B.C. Packers plant, quoted in: Ulli Steltzer and Catherine Kerr, Coast of Many Faces (Douglas & McIntyre, 1979).

Posted in Blog | Leave a comment

Bamboo People

Mitali Perkins, The Bamboo People (Charlesbridge, July 2010).

Ten years ago I told the story of Captain Albert Mah and Captain Cedric Mah, Chinese Canadian brothers who had amazing adventures flying the Burma Hump during the Second World War. I know that this is a different world than the one Mitali Perkins visits in Bamboo People. I say this only because my research into the country spawned a personal interest in the tragedy of modern-day Burma. I sought out Bamboo People as soon as I heard of it, and now Mitali Perkins has offered me a glimmer of understanding.

I could call Bamboo People a coming of age story, or an anti-war story. Either would be true, but neither would do it justice.

Chiko is a book-loving Burmese boy who wants only to be a teacher. We are drawn into his fear from the first pages. His father, an English-taught doctor, is jailed and perhaps dead for providing medical care to a leader of the freedom and democracy movement. Now Chiko has taken one of his father’s English books into the yard outside his family home in Yangon. He knows he’s taking a risk. He is tired of hiding, feeling as if he is also in a sort of prison.

The characters are vibrant. Chiko and his mother. Their neighbour, the inimitable Daw Widow, and her beautiful daughter Lei. And, after Chiko is brutally pressed into the army, Chiko’s unlikely friend, the street-boy Tai, and the Burmese soldiers who surround them.

Midway the point-of-view switches to Tu Reh, one of the Karenni. The Karenni are among the many oppressed minorities in Burma. Tu Reh watched his home and bamboo fields burned by the Burmese army, and from his new home in a Thai refugee camp he seethes with a desire for revenge. This feeling is magnified by Tu Reh’s friendship for the volatile Sa Reh.

For North American readers the worlds of Chiko and Tu Reh are unstable and frightening even without the conflict they face.

In my opinion the voice is the magic of this story. It is first person, present tense. It is deceptively simple. It seemed to be setting me up for a much gentler story, but soon that simple and honest voice began to speak of terrible things.

And because Mitali has seen with her own eyes she doggedly avoids opportunities for melodrama, or an overtly moralistic message, as she explores the themes of power and violence. In fact, as the worlds of Chiko and Tu Reh descend further and further into madness, as fear and anger grow into bravery and compassion and friendship, this simplicity of voice seems to grow even more fitting. This is elegant storytelling.

Posted in Blog | 1 Comment

The passenger pigeon

“I was born in Manitoba and came to Portage la Prairie about 1853. I was then only about six years old, and as far back as I can remember pigeons were very numerous.

“They passed over every spring, usually during the mornings, in very large flocks, following each other in rapid succession.

“I do not think they bred in any numbers in the province, as I only remember seeing one nest; this contained two eggs.

“The birds, to my recollection, were most numerous in the fifties, and the decline was noticed in the later sixties and continued until the early eighties, when they disappeared. I have observed none since until last year, when I am positive I saw a single male bird south of the town of Portage la Prairie.”

George A. Garrioch, quoted in George E. Atkinson, “A Review-History of the Passenger Pigeon in Manitoba” (Manitoba Historical and Scientific Society, Transactions, Series 1, No. 68, 1905).

Posted in Blog | Leave a comment

Between the pages

Original watercolour, labeled: “Steinbach, 1920, ‘the corner neighbours’ rear as seen from our house. The front faced Frieson Ave. From the right-hand edge of the picture a vegetable garden extended to the crossing with Mill Street (later called First Street). These buildings have been demolished.—M.H.S.” This was found in a lavish edition of King Arthur.

A couple of days ago AbeBooks.com ran a neat article about items found in antiquarian books. Boy, could I ever contribute to that discussion.

I could never tell you all of what I’ve found in over 30 years of collecting and dealing in books. I’ve saved only the odd thing. I can certainly tell you that I’ve never encountered anything truly valuable—a Mickey Mantle baseball card, or a stack of thousand dollar bills. I have found correspondence from well-known writers, though never famous writers.

The most prominent category of finds would certainly be bookmarks. I’ve found a thousand bookmarks. These are often from independent bookstores that have long since met their demise. Sometimes I look up the bookshop on-line, trying to learn if there was anything unusual about the place.

1935 Manitoba Driver's Guide, found in an old dictionary.

But people use just about everything as bookmarks. I’ve also found a thousand postcards, dating back to the very beginning. And playing cards, cigarette cards, and baseball and hockey cards. In Canada, another frequent find are the ubiquitous little Red Rose Tea collector cards. Greeting cards, notes, and envelopes bearing stamps as much as 125 years old have been almost common, in my experience.

The mundane have included hundreds of pressed leaves and flowers, cocktail napkins, holiday brochures, business cards, recipes, foreign banknotes, souvenir programmes, receipts, and business letterhead.

Perhaps the most valuable thing I’ve ever encountered was an immaculate memorial card produced when the Titanic sank, worth enough that I traded it for a rare edition on my want list. I’ve found original art, rare maps and prints.

Occasionally I leave things right where I found them. One example is a rebound copy of Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates, notable almost only for the lovely plates, which contains a packet of newspaper clippings about lost treasure. The clippings span almost 50 years, and when I open it I like to imagine the book’s owner nurturing a life-long interest in the subject.

I always feel a little guilty parting the book and the ephemera found within. They always seem to me to belong together, even when the book has been damaged by the things left between the pages.

Posted in Blog | Leave a comment

The Song My Paddle Sings

West wind, blow from your prairie nest
Blow from the mountains, blow from the west.
The sail is idle, the sailor too;
O! wind of the west, we wait for you.
Blow, blow!
I have wooed you so,
But never a favour you bestow.
You rock your cradle the hills between,
But scorn to notice my white lateen.

I stow the sail, unship the mast:
I wooed you long but my wooing’s past;
My paddle will lull you into rest.
O! drowsy wind of the drowsy west,
Sleep, sleep,
By your mountain steep,
Or down where the prairie grasses sweep!
Now fold in slumber your laggard wings,
For soft is the song my paddle sings.

August is laughing across the sky,
Laughing while paddle, canoe and I,
Drift, drift,
Where the hills uplift
On either side of the current swift.

The river rolls in its rocky bed;
My paddle is plying its way ahead;
Dip, dip,
While the waters flip
In foam as over their breast we slip.

And oh, the river runs swifter now;
The eddies circle about my bow.
Swirl, swirl!
How the ripples curl
In many a dangerous pool awhirl!

And forward far the rapids roar,
Fretting their margin for evermore.
Dash, dash,
With a mighty crash,
They seethe, and boil, and bound, and splash.

Be strong, O paddle! be brave, canoe!
The reckless waves you must plunge into.
Reel, reel.
On your trembling keel,
But never a fear my craft will feel.

We’ve raced the rapid, we’re far ahead!
The river slips through its silent bed.
Sway, sway,
As the bubbles spray
And fall in tinkling tunes away.

And up on the hills against the sky,
A fir tree rocking its lullaby,
Swings, swings,
Its emerald wings,
Swelling the song that my paddle sings.

E. Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake) 1861-1913, Flint and Feather (Musson, 1912).

Posted in Blog | Leave a comment

The Japanese fisherman

Near where the Yellowhead Highway ends, on a low cliff above the Prince Rupert waterfront, there is a Shinto shrine. It houses an elegant little Japanese fishing boat—at once both alien in this setting, and perfectly appropriate.

At 0900 on March 26, 1987, on a westerly swell, the Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) patrol vessel Sooke Post entered Dawson Harbour in Skidegate Channel. When the crew spotted an overturned hull they thought immediately of the Scotia Cape. DFO had helped search for the missing 120-foot dragger just the month before.

Upon approach it was clear that this was something different. The 27-foot barnacle- and weed-encrusted hull was sleek and narrow. Unfamiliar fish in the holding tank, and Japanese lettering aboard, made Captain Ken Harley and the crew of the Sooke Post guess that the vessel had drifted from Japan, and from the growth had been in the water for about two years. This was confirmed when the vessel was taken to Prince Rupert for identification.

On September 26, 1985 retired civil servant Kazukio Sakamoto had sailed from Owase, Japan, for a regular fishing trip in the boat his wife called “the love of his life.” He never returned. Sakamoto’s son, 34-year-old Mazaki, was first of the family to learn any clue of his father’s fate when he saw a story in the Japan Economic Journal about the Kazu Maru.

The remarkable coincidence of this was that Owase and Prince Rupert had been sister cities since 1968. The common ground between the small port cities could not have been more poignantly highlighted than in this connection through a loss at sea.

The Kazu Maru was donated to North Pacific Cannery National Historic Site, and it was displayed there until it became part of the plan to create Pacific Mariners’ Memorial Park. “The park started with the idea of a statue honouring those lost at sea,” alderman and retired fisherman Foster Husoy told Westcoast Fisherman, “but it just kept growing.”

Volunteers built the park. Local service clubs became heavily involved. A wall was built to display bricks naming those lost at sea, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board chose to display a plaque commemorating Triple Island Lighthouse. Marine artifacts were added, along with other memorials and even a playground. But the park’s star attraction, resting within a traditional Shinto shrine, was soon Kazukio Sakamoto’s Kazu Maru.

In late 1989 DFO staff restored the boat, and Foster Husoy traveled to Japan to visit with Sakamoto’s widow, Eiko. “I asked her how she felt her husband would have felt to have the boat displayed in a park in Prince Rupert,” he told the Daily News, “and she said he would have done anything to bring our two cities closer together.”

August 1990 Owase Mayor Haruo Sugita was on hand for the formal dedication of the park. On Sugita’s third visit to Prince Rupert in 1997, leading a delegation of 18 young Owase business people, he joined Mayor Jack Mussallem in unveiling a commemorative plaque on the Kazu Maru.

Beyond this sister city relationship, beyond the human connection of coastal people who risk their lives to work the sea, the Kazu Maru being here is fitting because it seems to me to reflect a moment in our history.

We seldom talk about the expulsion of the Japanese during the Second World War. Most of what I know I learned from the late Roger Obata, founding president of Canada’s first national organization of Japanese Canadians and Order of Canada recipient for his role in the Japanese Redress. He grew up here when the Japanese community was at its height in the 1920s and ‘30s. His father was the secretary of the Skeena River Japanese Fishermen’s Union.

Mr. Obata recalled a vibrant Japanese community, by degrees both integrated and segregated, with a cultural centre, language lessons, and social events. “In Prince Rupert,” he told me, “because of the type of community it was, there was very little race discrimination.” That was the legacy of the canneries, where the families of Japanese boatbuilders and fishermen lived alongside the families other cultures. It was the beginning of a cosmopolitan community. In Prince Rupert the expulsion remained an open wound, understood neither by the Japanese people, most of whom never came back, nor by the community they left behind.

When we talked about fishing Mr. Obata told me how Japanese techniques found their way into a vernacular style of boatbuilding. Japanese-built boats survived here into the 21st century. Here there was a marine legacy, integral to the human legacy.

I think that it is particularly fitting that this traditional Japanese boat has found a home in the park where we honour our sacrifice to the sea. And I think that it goes a little way toward acknowledging, if not mending, the way that the fabric of our community was ripped open a half-century before Kazukio Sakamoto lost his life aboard his little Kazu Maru.

Posted in Blog | Leave a comment

The writer and the reader

I’ve been thinking about a blog post by Molly O’Neill, who is an Assistant Editor at Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins. Her post was inspired by Janet Reid of FinePrint Literary Management, who was in turn inspired by a Slate article.

This same Slate article has had me thinking for the past couple of weeks. It was written by Joanna Smith Rakoff, whose one-time job at Harold Ober and Associates was apparently to ensure that somebody, somewhere, was reading the fan mail that J.D. Salinger didn’t want to see.

These posts play into a lot of conversations I’ve been having lately, with other writers, about the immediate accessibility provided by social media.

Molly was speaking specifically of teen writing, what happens when a reader—in this case a teen reader, and for this reason perhaps more emotionally charged—strongly identifies with a writer’s words and seeks a personal audience with the author. She asks, “what’s an author to do when that same sense of immediacy that we extol in writing for teens comes through in a reader’s communications—when they email/blog comment/Facebook message/MySpace post/Tweet/etc, etc. an author offering their own story, brimming with vulnerability and then desperately—or even just hopefully—await an answer, a meaningful response, a deeper connection, a promise that there’s a way past whatever moment they’re in the midst of living? And how does an author begin to shoulder that responsibility, that hunger, that need on the part of readers, somewhere in the midst of the other work of being a writer?”

I would argue that aside from the degree of intensity this holds true for any writer in any form of storytelling. I am known today primarily as a writer of adult nonfiction, primarily in periodicals, and I’ve never been particularly famous. But I’ve been hearing from readers—adoring, irate or otherwise—for thirty years. I have been the butt of extremely personal attacks, some of them in print. Once, years ago, my family even had to endure a particularly ardent young fan who found out where I lived, and lurked, watching, from a nearby park. That’s something I still don’t like to think about.

Molly asks how publishing industry professionals can help equip writers for a potential deluge of personal reaction. Janet Reid, speaking specifically about young writers, warned, “they will hear everything said, no filter available.”

In some cases—such as in the Salinger example—the publishing business will indeed provide a filter. As a publisher or editor I have sometimes even provided that filter (when I didn’t see any need to share ignorant comment with a valued writer). I can’t speak of how effectively Salinger avoided the world, but the point is that he did. An author who has withdrawn from his readers to that extent would simply not participate in social media. But unless the phone line is disconnected, unless the writer never goes for a walk and has hired help to do the shopping, there has never been an effective filter.

I believe that we tend to over-think the shininess of social media—just for starters, I can’t for the life of me see a difference between a blog and a newspaper column, or between blog comments and letters to the editor. I don’t think that much has changed. As a young reader I wrote to a few authors (one even wrote back). As a writer, the reader’s personal reaction made its way to me in written letters, or even in check-out aisles. The volume of feedback has increased, to be sure. Readers have responded to this new accessibility.

A friend of mine, a popular writer of stories for young adults, recently began to blog, and to participate in other social media venues. One of the first bits of feedback—in this case via Twitter—was from a librarian who lived far away and who just wanted to tell him how much she had enjoyed one of his stories. For that instant they touched, reader and writer, and the reader’s personal stake in that story was immeasurably heightened.

How can the bad, or even the uncomfortable, communications ever outweigh these powerful moments of validation? The relationship between writer and reader is too complex for a simple definition, but if I heard only the good, and never the angry or the troubled, I would never truly understand the nature of what I do.

It is perfectly understandable that editors and agents worry about this subject. In this reality of publishing they have always mentored and prepared beginning authors. Perhaps a certain degree of filtering is even necessary (I would be hypocritical to say otherwise, when I’ve done it myself). But the key lies in Molly’s question, how can these professionals prepare the writer for this? Because dealing with reader feedback is essential to the writer’s toolbox. It is simply a skill that a writer has developed, or else he or she is not a viable storyteller. I would take that one step farther, and say that understanding how one’s words are interpreted—not just by reviewers, but in the deeply personal, inner world of each reader—is vital to the growth of the storyteller.

Each writer will find his or her own level of comfort, and will instinctively engage only to that level. I once had letterhead, with my name and no return address; I now stand behind an electronic version of exactly the same thing.

The passion of readers has not changed. Sometimes, when the reader is too troubled, the best response is silence—or at best polite and careful acknowledgement or encouragement. It is seldom wise to engage too deeply. Most often, however, the reader just wants to tell you that you’ve touched them through similarity in experience. For that reason there is usually no more eloquent a response than a simple “thank you.” And that’s never changed. Only the means of communication have changed. The writer who does not learn to accept the impact of his or her story, learn to shoulder that responsibility, will tell no more stories. That’s too bad, but that’s the way it works.

Posted in Blog | 2 Comments

Make and Break Harbour

In Make and Break Harbour the boats are so few

Too many are pulled up and rotten

Most houses stand empty, old nets hung to dry

Are blown away lost and forgotten

Stan Rogers, “Make and Break Harbour,” Fogarty’s Cove, (Fogarty’s Cove Music, 1976).

Posted in Blog | Leave a comment

Sunshine sketches

Many of my friends are under the impression that I write these humorous nothings in idle moments when the wearied brain is unable to perform the serious labours of the economist. My own experience is exactly the other way. The writing of solid, instructive stuff fortified by facts and figures is easy enough. There is no trouble in writing a scientific treatise on the folk-lore of Central China, or a statistical enquiry into the declining population of Prince Edward Island. But to write something out of one’s own mind, worth reading for its own sake, is an arduous contrivance only to be achieved in fortunate moments, few and far between. Personally, I would sooner have written “Alice in Wonderland” than the whole Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Stephen Leacock, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town,  (John Lane The Bodley Head, 1912).

Posted in Blog | Leave a comment

Profoundly human

Twelve hours later, I’m still processing the Opening Ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympics.

This is not the first time I’ve realized that what I saw before me, on a television set, had just become one of those “moments” that shape my personal awareness of my country.

I was one of those kids herded around black-and-white screens in school gymnasiums to witness the 1972 Summit Series against the Soviet Union. Most Canadians can tell you exactly where they were at that moment, with 34 seconds remaining in the final game of the series on September 28, 1972, when Paul Henderson scored “the goal of the century.” These are moments that transcend sport. To see others joining in the Opening Ceremonies who have, in my lifetime, provided Canadians with these moments—Nancy Greene, Wayne Gretsky, Rick Hansen—eloquently reinforced this point.

Working in BC tourism, the Olympics have been a seemingly-endless marketing project that has been the focus of much of our collective effort for years. The reality of it seldom poked through—though my first glimmering came when hundreds of people crowded our downtown to celebrate the Olympic Torch on February 1.

I have been numbed enough by it that as late as yesterday afternoon I wasn’t sure I would even watch the Opening Ceremonies. Yet from the moment that the Mounted Police honour guard carried in the flag, and the host nations staged their stunning welcome, I finally remembered everything that this night meant.

I have heard John Furlong, CEO of the Vancouver Organizing Committee, speak many times over the years leading up to the Games. I have never heard him speak with last night’s passion. I found it particularly thought-provoking when he called Canada “a land visually blessed, rich in history and profoundly human.” I’m still thinking through many things that were said last night, but I know that these words will stick with me.

I think that no matter what any British Columbian might feel about the Olympics, it would have been difficult to avoid last night’s pride. The Opening Ceremonies did a fine job of encapsulating today’s Canada. I suppose that I’ve read hundreds of attempted definitions of Canada over the years, but I think that “profoundly human” is the perfect sentiment for this exact moment. Thank you, Mr. Furlong.

Posted in Blog | Leave a comment

Chaos theory

If Chaos Theory is correct, and a butterfly flapping its wings on one side of the world can cause a hurricane on the other, then two alert boys, filled with the perceptiveness and inquisitiveness of youth, can help turn around a town’s fortunes with their discovery of a dinosaur trackway. Much has been written and said in the media about the Flatbed Creek ankylosaur trackway discovery in 2000 by Mark Turner (eleven) and Daniel Helm (eight). Here, then, are the salient points: they were tubing down rapids, they fell off, they walked back upstream on the bedrock along the bank, and then correctly identified the series of depressions in the rock as dinosaur footprints.

They alerted the only adult present (yours truly) of their find, and have maintained ever after that I ridiculed it. My defence, that I was trying to instill a healthy sense of skepticism, by trying to rule out other possibilities, has been met with derision from then, something which seems to have increased over the years (oh, well).

Charles Helm, Exploring Tumbler Ridge (Tumbler Ridge News, 2008).

Posted in Blog | Leave a comment
Bruce Wishart
Whimsies. Sometimes about writing.
Sometimes about folklore. Sometimes
about the sea, or life on the coast.
And sometimes not.