Category Archives: Writings

On writing self-help, or have you eaten your tail lately?


https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20171204-the-ancient-symbol-that-spanned-millennia

I’ve been researching the “how to write/edit your book and get it published” industry as I prepare for my editing work and it is starting to make me laugh.

It’s an ouroborus, that magical snake eating its tail. There’s a lovely article on BBC about the history of this symbol, which is used to denote the cycle of life, the never-ending story, birth and rebirth. It’s been around forever, as, I suspect, has the self-help industry.

All of it makes me think of all those people who sell books telling you to market your book before you even start writing it- to check what sells and then write to the market. Most of the books they have sold, these marketing-focused authors, are self-help in one way or another. Cheery blandishments about living for today, stress management, decluttering, how to market yourself, write that novel now!, etc etc. It goes on and on and on.

Either that or a stories about werewolves in a post-apocalyptic world where there are three suns and 14 moons.

In the writing field, it seems to be the thing to write a book telling people how to write. I’ve been fooled into purchasing several of these, having been told they were “must reads” if you want to understand the writing process. A few are good. One or two are extremely valuable. And the rest? Ummm.

I’m getting cranky now, as I get older. I’ve also bought too many of these tomes, only to open them and realize there is nothing inside but babble and dross, most of it promoting other self-help or writing books. And when I read things like the “Self-Publishing Formula” and am told these authors are cranking out a book a month, I can’t help wondering if all the things being spun out are of any worth at all. (After all, writing a book seems to take me YEARS!) But people sell them, and promote them within the community, all telling everyone that that book by their friend must be read.

And so the snake goes on, eating its tail, being reborn as yet another self-help book, forever.

One of the most visible ouroboros writers is Julia Cameron. She had a good idea, with her “The Artist’s Way” book, and she has been spinning out the morning pages and artist dates ideas into book after book after book – all with essentially the same content. I’m not sure if I am envious of her success at persuading publishers to buy in over and over again, or just irritated that so many trees are being killed to produce the same thing over and over, with a slightly different take. I mean, I know the lass has to make a living, but I do wish for fresh ideas.

It’s really tough to come up with a creative, original story line for fiction, romance, science fiction, mystery. In these areas, rehashing the exact same ideas is somewhat frowned upon. I suspect it is less tough to come out with a book on truisms and how-tos. Or involving werewolves.

I expect publishers like the non-fiction things, too, in that people keep buying them, never mind the post-purchase regret. And much of the self-help industry relies on well-written book blurbs that lead us to expect great things from the enclosed advice. So we buy, and regret.

I adore good non-fiction, the stuff that is carefully researched, that shines a light into an area I know nothing about. I’m always looking for new sources of knowledge. See: Entangled Life: How Fungi make our worlds, change our minds and shape our futures by Merlin Sheldrake (Such a glorious name for someone writing on fungi! I mean, he thanks the fungi from which he has learned in acknowledgements! I love him already.)

But the ouroboros of retelling the same mundane details and self-help advice that is written in poetic smarm – that I can do without.

Thank heavens for libraries that allow you to dip in without financial commitment – and yet the authors get a bit of a payback nonetheless, enough to compensate for the work they’ve done reworking concepts. I always buy the ones I find useful. I suspect Mr. Sheldrake will gain a spot on my bookshelf.

The enduring prejudice


Photo by Polina Tankilevitch on Pexels.com

The other day, while idly wandering cookie recipes online, I came across one for oatmeal chocolate chip ones and scrolled down (I couldn’t remember my usual go to and had some chocolate chips looking lonely). The writer started off, as many do, with a little introductory blather, in which she said something to the effect of:

My grandmother lived to age 94, surprisingly, given her love for cookies and sweets and things like this recipe.

Now I’m a certified cookie-lover, and I couldn’t help but take umbrage. Why is it surprising that her grandmother lived while still loving cookies? Maybe it was the cookies that gave her the will to live! I know that on some of these grey winter days, when getting out of bed seems an unworthy struggle, the thought of a fresh cookie with my morning coffee can be the difference between loitering under the covers and springing into action.

And these were HOME MADE cookies she was talking about, lacking the usual death-dealing chemicals found in the store-bought kind that the author was probably secretly scarfing while looking all judgey-judgey at her poor grandmother toiling over a hot oven to bring deliciousness to her family (and/or herself, and there’s nothing wrong with that).

You never see anyone talking about their grandmother expressing surprise that she lived to an extended age despite her persistent love for kale, do you?

Well, that’s because people who live on kale die young, realizing early on that life has no purpose, no joy, no raison d’être. There’s only so much bitter green stuff a person can chew through before the pointlessness of it all becomes apparent.

But it’s okay to shame the cookie-eaters. Of all the prejudices, the ones against the plump, or even the sweet lover, the eater of fat, well, those remain and are endlessly reinforced.

Heard a comic the other day talking about how the best marriages are when the man’s ability to see drops as his wife ages. Yeah. The wife that births the children, manages the everything, and maybe, maybe, resorts to the occasional cookie in desperation. The wife whose eyes see fine and realizes the husband has turned into a smelly hairy hulk with bad teeth, but she’s the one with the problem with sinking attractiveness, of course. Grr.

So I say, huzzah for the cookie. It’s a small bundle of pure joy, perched in the palm of your hand like a precious gift, ready to bring delight. Eat on, grandmothers and others who cherish cookies. Life is too short to fill with gritty greens, no matter how long you live. Munch on, wallow in the brown sugar and butter goodness. Then, when you live long, you might actually enjoy it.

The year of reading podcastingly, or an alternative to the Book Riot’s Read Harder challenge


My darling cousin referred me to an excellent podcast, Backlisted, described thus: “Giving New Life to Old Books. The literary podcast presented by John Mitchinson and Andy Miller. Brought to you by Unbound. Visit www.backlisted.fm

My current to be read list…

Suffice to say my life has been forever changed. Who knew there was a book called “The Victorian Chaise longue“? It’s a horror story, by the way. And I want to read it after listening to the people on the podcast discussing it. They discuss books like “Diary of a Nobody” and another must read for me, “Silence”, by Shusaku Endo. A quote from there via Goodreads:

“Sin, he reflected, is not what it is usually thought to be; it is not to steal and tell lies. Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another and to be quite oblivious of the wounds he has left behind.” 

Doesn’t that sound like a mind exercise? A thought expander?

In the podcast, the speakers start off with telling the audience what they are reading that week. They read the most enticing things. So so many books I haven’t yet read, a few already on my TBR list, lots of authors of whom I haven’t even heard. So astonishing.

So, for this upcoming year, I plan to surf through this podcast’s recommendations and try to read as many of them as I can. One of the presenters is the developer of the year of reading dangerously, so how could he lead me astray?

I highly recommend the podcast, thought the intro music is the most annoying stuff I’ve ever heard. That said, they incorporate music in the rest of their presentation that add a lot to the discussion. All of the presenters seem to be having such a jolly time, all really enjoying the books they read and talking about them. It’s terribly inspiring.

So off I go, today listening to “The Complete Molesworth” with a view to reading that pretty quickly. Another for the TBR list.

Anyone game to join me in reading from this list?

Christmas Work


Photo by cottonbro studio on Pexels.com

In my family, we always thought of Christmas as my dad’s day. It’s not clear why, and after having squeezed the life into a few family Christmases myself, I can empathize with the repressed rage my mum must have experienced over this.

She’d spend weeks, months even, baking, cleaning, getting us new clothes, preparing us and the house for big parties with neighbours and friends. When family visited from far away, she sorted out beds and meals and church and every bit of the framework. And then my dad would step forward and lead the festivities. He’d gather us at the piano, and we’d all sing or play along on whatever instrument we were torturing at the time. He’d dominate the jigsaw table, hiding pieces from us, only to tap them in place with a braggart’s finger, triumph on his face. Just him and us. Mum wasn’t a part. She was in the kitchen.

We’d be honoured to accompany him as co-conspirators when he asked us to dash about with him at the last minute, seeking just that perfect present, running in and out of shops before the final closing on Christmas Eve. We’d be forcibly marched out of Lechmere, a shop filled with all sorts of cool technology, the clerks glaring at us as the overhead blared that, “The store is now closed. Please make your way to a cashier now.” He was either extremely lucky or had spent more time thinking about things than it seemed. He’d always find the perfect gift for my mother– a soft green velour pantsuit that highlighted her gorgeous eyes was one I remember. I don’t remember many others, focused as I was at the time on my own goodies, but I do remember her cries of delight.

Mum never got the same reaction. She’s have spent weeks in agonies over what to get him, and whether he’d like it, only to get a lukewarm reaction from him. Her gift somehow was always the wrong size or not wanted and dad’s disappointment would show.

Tension inevitably grew as the day passed. At the time I was unsympathetic, but back then I didn’t know the Christmas fatigue that overwhelms mothers, or whoever else gets the task of making the day happen. Now I do.

Dad had fun, though –the clown at the party, he came on stage and managed the presents (most bought by mum). My older brother, an acquisitive lad with some Smaug-like tendencies, was forced to exchange one of his past items for the coveted new one while Dad looked on with glee. My brother collected cameras, so my dad would gift my younger brother a piece of the new camera my older brother wanted. He would have to sacrifice one of his treasured older cameras to get the piece he wanted, and he visibly hated that thought. Both boys would eventually be happy, my father could economize, but we always knew his real joy lay in watching the reluctant exchange.

Then, just like the Grinch after his heart growth, dad would preside over the dinner table to carve the Roast Beast. Ever the perfect host, he’d regale the table with stories and jokes, puzzles and games (and far too many puns). Meanwhile my mum would carry in the meal she’d prepared, serve it, clear away the dishes, and tidy up the mess. We kids would all flee the table and follow him like imprinted ducklings into the living room to play with our new treats, abandoning mum to the kitchen tasks.

We were heartless.

Still, at Christmas, I always think of my dad, of his smiles, his music, his obvious love for us shining forth. Meanwhile, the softer, more hidden love that showed in all the backbreaking labour my mum did keeps getting forgotten.

My dad even died on Christmas Eve, taking his light away on the day we most associated with him, ensuring we’d always think of him first at that magical time. I’m sure he’s laughing about that even now. Somewhere.

My mother is probably laughing, too. She died on Mother’s Day a few years later, a final kick at the ‘who’s more important’ can. So she has her own spot where we can never forget her.

I wish she’d been around longer, long enough for me to let her know how much I enjoyed her efforts, understood her holiday fatigue, was so grateful for all of it. I don’t think I ever did.

Christmas (or any holiday) magic takes time, effort, hard work. Cheers to all who manage to create it for those you love.

Write what you fear


A few years ago I got this advice in a workshop and I immediately thought of my friend who’d just been admitted to a long term care home after a stroke. In minutes, his life was no longer his own; unable to function, he was completely dependent on an institution to provide everything for him.

It’s a terrifying thought, especially for an independent gal like myself who lives with a progressive incurable disabling disease. Ever since my diagnosis, this spectre has haunted my thoughts. On those days where I have trouble with my legs and have issues getting into the shower, it trots right in to my mind and makes itself at home, picking its teeth and farting loudly.

Of course it immediately occurs to me that both of those things are not acceptable in long term care homes. I mean, you are under constant supervision. How does one pass wind? I immediately envision me scootering around to abandoned areas of the home to let go, only to be discovered by disapproving residents.

A friend of mine has just had to arrange this sort of transfer for her mother and the amount of work she has to do gives me pause as well. I restrain myself from immediately calling 1-800 got junk and having them take away everything, just in case. I have a horror of the kids going through my precious items and judging me, laughing at what I chose to keep, those indecent bras that I like because they are comfortable but which really should never be seen, love letters from men they never met, odd books from friends, half knit socks…

It doesn’t help that I’ve just heard that the retirement home bleating of on-site health care is just this, bleating. If you are lucky, you might have an on-site nurse, but generally it can be anything from a PSW to a retired surgeon resident who maybe can see you at coffee.

This seems unpromising.

So off I go to the gym, hoping to forestall the eventual. Truth is, we’re all, after a certain point, just one fall from being incarcerated. But I persist in trying to postpone it as long as possible.

I admit the thought of daily meals prepared for me can seem tempting. And someone to do laundry. Maybe someone to chat with over meals.

But, (she thinks), that would mean retiring those bras…

Instead, I’ll write stories about captives in nursing homes, subjected to attacks and robberies, under the grip of malevolent administrators. Maybe I’ll make them win most of the time.

It’ll make me feel better, anyway…

Some of my poetry attempts, published in OHForgery


Open Heart Forgery is a lovely free journal that “aims to energize Halifax writers from the grass roots up.” It does exactly that, giving poets a chance to see their words in print. I miss it greatly now that I’ve decamped to Ontario.

Before I left, they graciously accepted some of my doggerel. I’ve attached them below. Enjoy…

Photo by Free Photos.cc on Pexels.com

Gloomily Ruminating On the Day Ahead, or
waking to an email saying I have been rejected
by Dorothyanne Brown June 2014

Sleep tastes like cat hair in my mouth
I peer at my iPad, one eye,
The good one for reading,
Barely open, the other shut
So as not to confuse
“Thank you, but no,” the message says
Confirming again
My utter failure as a writer
My uselessness as a conveyor of emotion
My uncounted wasted hours
Cheer up, my friend says
You’ll do better, later
Think of Stephen King!
(He does not write, my friend)
I pull in my eviscerated organs
Grimace-grin
And plod on, blinking.

On receiving an unwelcome package in the mail
Dorothyanne Brown February 2015

Oh frabjous day, callooh callay
Said Carroll long ago
I rather imagine his joyous day
Was not like mine, oh no.

For on this day I smiled wide
To see a letter lie so
Against my lonely mailbox side
Where only bills seem to go

I clasped it in my sweaty hands
Excited as a child
Only to read on the return address
That it was THAT test inside

A fingertip of Death’s cool hand
Poked in my quivering belly
“It’s time to screen your poo,” he said
“A task most awfully smelly.”

It is a shabby life I lead
When the post is so unexciting
That even a test you smear and return
Seems ALMOST quite inviting.

Learning again
Sonnet by Dorothyanne Brown April 2013

When I was just a tiny girl
I used to want to find my boy
But now that my whole life’s awhirl
I find that men, they do annoy.

They want a gal to fill their tum
And keep them warm and often touched
Unless I cheer them, they are glum
And lay about and scratch and such.

But as I age I feel the ache
Of living lone and sans a mate
It seems I must a big step take
And find a chum before too late

To learn to care again is tough
I only hope to love enough.

Writing clothes, or what to wear when you really don’t want to be distracted


Photo by Ivan Samkov on Pexels.com

I am ashamed and a bit embarrassed to state I don’t have any sweatpants at the moment. I certainly don’t have a set that matches my surroundings and computer, allowing me to lounge in peaceful positions. To be fair, my surroundings when I write are anything but peaceful, scattered with pens, notebooks, reference texts, a cup of something, and the occasional chocolate item (for strengthening).

Yes, despite being a writer with my head in the clouds and definitely not in sartorial splendour, I lack this essential garment. I’m wondering if I need to invest, just to speed my writing along.

Part of why I don’t have sweats has to do with hemming – every pair of pants I own has required hemming and even with the elastic bottoms of the average sweatpants leg, the ballooning of extra material over my too short legs is distracting and potentially a tripping hazard. We won’t get into how things tangle up in my under the desk bike I use to fool myself into thinking writing is an aerobic activity. (Undoing tangles seems to be, though. That bike is heavy.)

Plus, they are expensive these days, sweatpants. And unless this book actually gives me more royalties than my first one, (Recycled Virgin, coming in at roughly $20 so far this year) (please buy a copy as winter is coming), I may have to do without. Even used ones at thrift shops are more than that and, ummm, used sweatpants conjure up images of underwear not worn…

I do have writing clothes, though. I just read this article by an author, Heidi Soyinka, who bought clothing like her characters would wear, to put her into the mood. She bought vintage clothing of all sorts as she tried to get into her characters’ heads.

It made me think about what I wear to thrash through my novel. I suppose, for me to be in the mood, I should put on a nursing uniform, one of the old ones from the Kingston General Hospital School of Nursing, the ones with the aprons and starched cuffs and collar.

I rather suspect the excellent Museum of Health Care might have something to say about me filching same from them.

And, unfortunately, I gave away my old nursing student uniforms. Maybe I could get away with my kitchen apron, just pretend the food stains weren’t on it, tie it up tight so I had the necessary chest constriction…this would help keep the chocolate stains to a minimum, I suppose…

Fortunately for my writing, I remember my nursing school uniform days, the nylon stockings that always grabbed, the uncomfortable shoes that were the cheapest available, and which squeaked unattractively and ruined my arches. My student uniform was pink and white striped, with a white bib and cuffs and it was unspeakably horrid, fitted tightly over my already too round figure. I was furious that the one male student in my year didn’t have to wear pink stripes, and got to wear a much more practical scrub suit, with no nylons to be seen.

So no, don’t want to repeat this.

I suppose I could try coughing excessively, as I am writing about Tuberculosis and a hacking cough and sore throat would bring me into the scene – but in these COVID times I feel my neighbours would report me to the health police as a vector of infection.

I could open the windows wide, as they did in the sanatoriums of the time, bringing in bracing and clear air, but it does get chilly sitting and writing, and besides, my companion birds would object. They dislike chills. Even in the slightest cross breeze they puff up and glare at me with their beady eyes. It’s disconcerting.

So I’m left with my usual not-so-glorious clothing for writing. These involve some jeans-type things (inexpertly hemmed) with elastic waists so they don’t compress, and some sort of overly loose top. These are things that I never wear out of doors as they are too disreputable for polite company – after Covid lockdowns I’ve worn the seams off some of them, and they look chewed. Could be I’ve chewed them in agony over some unexpected plot twist (characters WILL misbehave)–I can’t remember.

But something about putting them on does set me up for writing. It says, to myself and anyone who happens to come to the door, that I am not going out anywhere, that my focus is internal that day, that I don’t want to be disturbed. Add unwashed hair and anyone who doubts I am really busy would quickly grasp I didn’t want to be seen. I have frightened Amazon delivery persons on a writing day, and they are tough.

And in them, I’m comfortable enough to sink into my story, let my brain go play. That’s more difficult with fancy clothes. They distract, as I tug and rearrange them. But perhaps that’s only because I’m trying to cycle as I write?

I think, instead, I’ll turn on some music from the 1940’s to generate atmosphere – that’s easier than having to change, and the birdies even like it.

Keep an eye out for my upcoming book, Spit and Polish, expected Spring 2023.

Oh Captain, my captain!


https://abcnews.go.com/GMA/News/queen-elizabeth-ii-dies-funeral-coronation/story?id=88971819

How does one grieve the loss of such a head of state?

I’ve only ever known about the Queen–too young to appreciate anyone before her, uncertain of the following act. I feel at sea without her.

My parents took me to grow up in the USA and, though I remained a Canadian patriot and fled north as soon as I could, it took me a while to understand the government of my birth country. Who were these lieutenants and governors general? What possible point did they have?

I have to admit to remaining puzzled about this, especially after a certain proroguing parliament exercise, but I’ve never doubted the Queen. She was always there. Always doing things in the proper way, always a constant in the wildly changing world I’ve grown up in. I had the feeling she was the stopgap before madness took the world over, the sober second thought our Senate is supposed to be.

I know, I know, she was to be apolitical–and I’m sure she played her role well–but simply her length of service made her a vital resource to world leaders. And yes, I know the Commonwealth was really anything but that–much of it remains poor, actually, and prejudice and bad treatment abounded.

But I never got the feeling she was encouraging the racist agenda. She seemed to float above it, like the goal we should all work towards. The person who put duty and country above all, who showed up for work almost every day of her life, who put up with all the noise and fuss and nasty remarks and just wore it all with a beatific smile.

It was left to her governments to wield the axe. And of course, I am not at the receiving end of some of the more disadvantageous policies of them, so I can say little.

But be that as it may, like so many people today, I feel I am mourning my grandmother. My own grandmother had that queen’s smile. A gentle nature, incredible patience with her demanding husband and a houseful of pranksters, I never heard her raise her voice or say anything negative about anyone. She was from England, too. I yearn for her level of grace. (I doubt I will ever attain it, though). I think of her when I think of the Queen. Cut from tough and beautiful cloth, enduring, like a well woven tapestry.

I know it’s got to be King Charles now, and I wish him well, I suppose, but he simply doesn’t have that way about him. Maybe the crown will give him dignity. He’s not going to be able to come close to filling the gap left by that astonishing sovereign his mother, though.

So I’m feeling deeply sad. I’m grieving the loss of a woman so far away from me in so many ways it’s astonishing that I feel such a strong connection. Godspeed, your Highness. If there’s a heaven, I hope they’ve arranged a lovely garden party for you, and a welcome rest. Knowing you, though, I’ll bet you’ll be at work right away.

“Oh Captain, my Captain! Our fearful trip is done;

The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won;

The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,

While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:

But O heart! heart! heart!

O the bleeding drops of red,

Where on the deck my Captain lies,

Fallen cold and dead.”

Walt Whitman

Feeling the morbs


This wonderful word was used in Victorian times to describe feeling downhearted. I’m all over the morbs today.

I find it hard to believe the bombing in Ukraine is actually happening. How is it we haven’t evolved past the need to pound innocents with weaponry? It is obscene.

I can’t help but visualize the poor mums and babes in the maternity hospital, being forced to shelter in the basement, the patients of all ages in the hospitals with nowhere to hide, no supplies, no oxygen.

It is astonishingly evil, this attack on Ukraine and like so much astonishing evil these days, we seem helpless to stop it. I had thought we had safeguards built into our governments, our processes, but no. It seems that in the face of malevolence, we are stunned, stuck in space.

I am frustrated by my inability to be much help. I refuse to enter into the social media humble-bragging about how “the news is depressing so I have to remind myself that I live in safety and have nice things” miasma, though. It seems smug at the least and quite inexcusably tone-deaf to tell people how happy and warm you are while people are being exploded into smithereens by war-crime quality bombing.

We privileged folks have always done this, while people in other parts of the world survive hell (or don’t). It needs to stop. We live a life of good things on the backs of those who provide it, often at their cost. I am typing this on an Apple phone, something for which I feel guilty though it’s an old version and I can alleviate some anxiety by remembering that.

I have a lucky life. I know this. It was a result of the land of my birth. If I’d been born in Ukraine, or the Sudan, life would not be as lucky. So let’s stop being smug about our accidental location, and do what we can to help those elsewhere. Please? We need some humanity, not aversion of heads.

UNITED WE STAND
FOR
UKRAINE

Pysanky


Back when I was young and foolish and had no idea of cultural appropriation or even much knowledge at all about Ukraine, I briefly became a member of the Queen’s University Ukrainian Club.

I joined because I had three lovely Ukrainian friends- a boyfriend, a future boyfriend, a gal pal. I joined for the parties, the vodka, the perogies. It was all tasty and fun and everyone seemed full of the cheery cultural spirit I lacked in my own pale upbringing.

I lacked understanding of the challenges behind this background but I was quite willing to drape myself over it, learning how to make Ukrainian goodies, dancing to the music.

I tried my hand at making pysanky, thanks to some excellent kistkas constructed by my friend and his apt tutelage. I remember the weight of the raw egg on my hand as we drew patterns on it the eggs in wax, dipped them in dye, drew again.

The last bit of creating the pysanky involved heating the egg gently, wiping away the melted wax, revealing the colourful designs underneath. The egg was always at the point of breakage, safe only when held gently yet firmly, an interesting tension to create.

Much later, I tried again, only to realize that the numb hands I have now meant the egg was endangered- I broke many.

The feeling of that warmed egg in my careful hand is in my thoughts today as I read the news about Ukraine. I dread the heavy handed people invading, risking crushing the beauty that resides in the country. As I listen to the news, my hands curl, as if to cup Ukraine in safety, even as the heat of the candle approaches.

We all seem to be in an angry mood these days, using eggs as weapons rather than art objects. I wish that all would take the time to hold an egg in their cupped hand, sense its strength and its fragility, and send wishes for courage to our world leaders to demonstrate both.

Thinking of the people of Ukraine, and in fact, of all peoples enwrapped in war and threat.