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Writing Novels about Dance

Novels about dance can become too sterile: the ones I read as a teen (I don’t recall the series name anymore) always centered around a protagonist who was trying to make it. Fame had the same premise. A Chorus Line. Billy Elliot. Center Stage. One recent exception so far is Off Kilter. I always knew I’d write a novel about dance, but I wanted to write one that didn’t follow that generic plot line. (Though I did write one when I was 16 that will thankfully never see the light of day.) Although Between Worlds is about more than dance, dance plays a central role in Juliana’s life.

How to Write about Dance in Fiction?

So dance is part of Juliana’s life, but using dance in fiction carries a certain challenge: how to describe what the dancer is doing and feeling without boring the audience.

Dance is a visual art form. I’ve written dance reviews, but just talking about steps wouldn’t have any effect on my readers. Instead, I had to talk about the choreography, costumes, lighting, the dancers themselves, because all those elements worked together. With Juliana, though, I don’t have access to all those elements. Does the reader care about the lighting in Juliana’s dance studio? Or does the reader want a detailed description of her dance outfits?

I also need to remember that not all readers are looking for novels about dance. They’re reading the series instead because they like the premise of the series, or because they enjoy the juxtaposition of a historical storyline with a contemporary one. In addition, steps mean nothing to a reader who has never studied dance.

As I debated my dilemma some more, I realized that when I wrote about dancers for other magazines, we never talked about the steps; we talked about what dance felt like to them, or what they loved about dance. If they were older dancers (like, way older), we discussed how they danced now. But it was never, or at least rarely, about the steps.

How to Write about the Dancer in a Novel, Then?

When I was 14, my emotional self wanted to pull me deeper inside my conscious self, but I was scared of forgetting where I was in my dance and of sharing too much of myself on stage. It means that, when writing storylines about dance, I have to stretch past my own experience. When I describe how Juliana gets lost in her dancing, I’m describing a dream, because it’s not something I’ve ever been able to fully realize for myself. (If you’re able to get lost in dance, tell me in the comments section below what that’s like.)

So I needed to find a balance. Too much description about dance, and I risked losing some readers. Too much emphasis on Juliana’s thoughts, and I risked losing yet others. I was confident I could achieve that balance, so the next question came up: what dance form to use?

Writing Involves Rhythm. So Does Dance.

Dance in fiction often focuses on ballet. Dance in movies currently seems to be more hip hop and street than ballet. I wanted something different, but I also had to be comfortable writing about it. So I chose tap. But how could I incorporate it so that readers who’ve never studied it understand what I’m writing?

Aside from being my favourite form of dance, tap also has the bonus of fairly standard vocabulary, and at least to my ears, the terminology often matches the rhythm (or can be made to do so.) In the last scene of The Move, Juliana taps on her new tap board while working through the major changes that happened in her life. The scene was challenging to write, but I think it achieved the balance needed to express a teen dancer and still keep the reader’s interest.

Let me know in the comments section what your thoughts were on that last scene. Be sure to mention if you’ve danced or not.

Have Questions about Writing Novels about Dance?

If you’re happening upon this blog post because you’re doing a project on dance for school, or if you have questions about writing and dance, feel free to leave your questions below. If they’re personal (i.e., you don’t want the world knowing your question and my answer), email me. I’ll certainly do my best to answer.

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Watching Artists Grow Up

Mike Nesmith and Micky Dolenz in concert, flnaked by lead guitarist left and Christian Nesmith right.Getting hooked on to a group part way through their career is liking getting sucked into a syndicated novel series like Nancy Drew. You get to discover what came before while you wait for what comes next.

Last night, I got to see two musicians who are now in their 70s, and who hooked me in with their kooky, psychedelic 60s TV show when I was 9 (which was in the 80s): Mike Nesmith and Micky Dolenz.

A lot of artists don’t make it as far as they have, and if theatre seats in Kitchener are any indication, the theatre didn’t sell out. It was likely about 80% full, mind you, but it didn’t sell out. (The Centre In The Square seats about 2,000.) That’s likely a long way down the audience attendance meter from the 60s, when the Monkees were selling out stadiums.

But is creativity really about that? About always filling out stadiums? Or is it about getting to a point in your life where you can be you, in all your glory and fame. Dolenz’s voice was going: you could hear it. Now, that could be age or the fact that Kitchener was late on the 16-stop tour and his voice was just giving up. I’ll leave any technical critiques to trained singers here. But I still saw Dolenz performing Dolenz so much so that I imagined that curly head he had in the 60s was just hiding under his broad-brimmed cowboy hat, and his voice sounded so much better than when he was young, as though he trusted himself more, despite the limitations.

And he sang “Goin’ Down” and “Randy Scouse Git,” two of my favourite Monkees songs.

Nesmith’s sense of humour popped up at the best times, in small doses that made you want more of him. He’s an artist who knows just when to show off and when to pull back, leaving the biggest moment when he shouted out, “Listen to the band!” and the 12-piece band behind him cranked it. Nesmith’s humour even showed in his sparkly shoes that stood on stage in stark contrast to his black outfit. I’d love to see him in a solo concert some day.

When I wrote up some of the marketing material for the concert (the theatre is one of my clients), as soon as I realized they show was being billed as “The Mike and Micky Show,” I did my best to produce advertising the reflected them as individual artists. Maybe I should’ve emphasized The Monkees banner more to fill in those last rows.

But every artist has a unique voice, and I wanted to respect that in these two. Yes, they got a spot in a boy band because they succeeded at Hollywood auditions. But they’re still loved by many because of the individual careers they’ve forged for themselves, the creative paths they set out on, and, one must admit, the teams that support them in their work, both as soloists and as The Monkees.

That means that for my creative work, and for yours, we need to find a space where the basics of our art forms meet the voices that live in our hearts and want to be heard.

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The Freelancing Fallacy: You Believe a Freelancing Career Means You’re Your Own Boss

Enraptured by the idea of running your own business so you’re your own boss? Sick and tired of answering to a tyrannical boss at work? Love the idea of getting up whenever you want to without having to apologize to your manager and team at work?

Please, please listen to me when I say this: When you run your own business, you have lots of bosses. They’re your clients, vendors, and, yes, even the government.

So don’t quit your day job to start your own business just because you can’t stand the manager you have right now.

Freelancing is Like School

One of the best things our education system teaches us is how to adjust what we produce to meet the needs of the person in power. In school, college, and university, that’s your teacher, instructor, professor. At work, it’s your boss, and likely even your boss’s boss, your boss’s boss’s boss, and so on.

You had to look at the course requirements, you likely listened for hints from other students on how to succeed in a teacher’s class, and you may even have visited rating sites to find tips for profs you were stuck with.

School was the perfect training ground for running your own business. Some clients will be happy with almost anything you produce, and some will have exacting standards you need to meet. If you want to find success, you’ll have to learn to adjust to each client’s preferences.

Running by Your Own Rules

There are also consequences if you ignore your clients’ wishes and requirements. Yes, you can set your hours without asking anyone for permission. That’s true. But if a good client calls you up and says they have $1,000 worth of work for you to do the week of your vacation, what will your answer be?

There are ways to mitigate such situations, and I thankfully haven’t lost any business yet because of family time away from home. But I have taken on last-minute work that needed weekend time to get done, because otherwise I would’ve lost out on $700.

Choosing Your Clients

The plus side to needing a variety of clients is choice: you can choose whom you want to work with. For some, that is the ultimate freedom. If a potential client is already very demanding on the phone before you’ve even agreed to a contract, you can politely decline, saying you’re busy. Or you can refer them to someone who may be willing to work with them. (Just because you don’t jive with that person doesn’t mean someone else will have that same feeling.)

If your client roster is full of people you enjoy working with, then almost every assignment is fun and fulfilling. Unlike in an employment situation, where you have the same boss, no matter your feelings about them, you have some leeway with your clients.

 

Employment Laws

I love freelancing, and I don’t want to turn you off running your own business if that’s what you really want to do. But if you’re doing it to escape the nightmare boss you’re working for right now, you may be better off just getting another job.

Running your own business can cause a lot of financial insecurity, and you have no employment laws to protect you. Client not paying on time? Can’t call the labour board. Client shouting at you over the phone? Can’t talk to their boss about harassment. Did someone choose not to work with you because of your sexual orientation? I’m certain you won’t have much of an argument at the human rights tribunal.

If you need to force a client to do something, it’s up to you to get a lawyer involved. And it’s up to you to pay for it.

Do This Self-Test

If you’re planning to freelance, write up your business plan. In it, include your ideal type(s) of client AND where you think you could find them. Then gear your marketing plan towards that. Estimate time and cost, and add 15% (because it’ll often take longer and cost more than you think).

You still run the risk of finding less-than-ideal clients, but once you sit down and think this through, it should help clarify if running your own business is really what you want.

Why?

Because you will hopefully find out how hard marketing is and think twice before you strike out on your own. Freelancing is extremely fulfilling, but some aspects of it are extremely hard, and finding the right clients can be one of those aspects. But don’t go into freelancing because you get to be your own boss.

Because you don’t.

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Getting Back on Top of Your Goals

It’s Not too Late

The first quarter of 2018 is almost over. So, I’m going to ask that ominous question, the one that sounds like the monster that’s been hiding in your closet all these years, whose presence you keep denying to yourself.

How are your New Years’ goals coming along?

Ouch. Did that hurt? Did you feel an arrow fly into your stomach? Or maybe into your head as you suddenly remembered you even had New Years’ goals?

I’m certain you’re not alone, and I’ve got news for you: it’s not too late to start the pursuit again.

Review the Last 3 Months

This might be painful, but quarterly reviews clarify for you what’s going on. What’s really going on. They break the safety bubble you live in, because you’re faced with the good, the bad, the ugly, and the very ugly when you review your progress of the past three months. But keep this in mind: In my experience, the more honest I am with myself and my progress, the easier pursuing my goals becomes. Why? Because I fear less.

When you review your last few months, ask yourself these questions:

Am I where I want to be?

If so, what did I do that got me there? (And continue doing it.)

If not, what did I do that didn’t work? (And find a new way of doing it.)

Get Support to Reach Your Goals

If you’re on track with your goals, you probably don’t want to mess with things. But if you’re off track, then it may be time to get help.

Here’s what happened to me last year: For the first time during my annual review, I calculated how much the time I’d spent on marketing efforts, multiplied it by the hourly rate of what I’d earned for the year, and used the total as a measure of how much money I’d “spent” on marketing last year. I then reviewed how much new business I’d won over the year. The final figures weren’t pretty. In fact, they were pretty devastating. So, I contacted a marketing consultant to do an audit on my efforts and set me on the right path.

But that’s what I’m talking about. Even if you’re trying to lose weight, haven’t reached your word goal, or still have the same number of customers as last year, get help! Either join a group, see your doctor, find a good therapist or coach…Whatever your means allow, now’s the time to get a little assistance.

Do You Need to Re-Align?

The beauty with checking in on your goals every quarter like this is that it gives you a chance to re-align them with where you are now. Remember, you created your New Years’ goals in a certain frame of mind, at a certain time in your life, under a certain set of circumstances. If your situation has changed, you may need to adjust how you achieve your goals.

That’s okay!

What if you planned to write 1,000 words a week but the serious diagnosis of a loved one rammed you off course? It doesn’t mean you can’t write at all.

What if you wanted to quit smoking but in the meantime lost your job, leaving you with more stress than your non-smoking self can handle? That  doesn’t mean you can’t regain your footing. You adjust. (And, of course, get help so you can make it through.) Remember, every little bit helps, so don’t discount small, regular steps towards your goals. Not everything has to be achieved by leaps and bounds.

Don’t be Afraid

Looking at progress is a powerful motivator to help you move forward. It’ll help you figure out what’s gone wrong and hopefully inspire you to plan your next steps to get back on track.

They say every journey begins with a step. Take that next step now to get back on the path you dreamed for yourself this year.

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Even Groups That Don’t Cost a Dime Cost You Time

Make the Most of Your Group Membership

Unfortunately, when I started writing, I didn’t have the equivalent of my 20 years of dancing training to teach me how to do it. I’d taken an online course, contacted a magazine I had a vague connection with, and pitched an idea. They took it! AND they paid me for my work! But I wasted A LOT of time on those assignments, because I didn’t belong to an appropriate group:

  • I spent an hour interviewing people instead of 15 minutes.
  • I wasted hours trying to find a “creative angle,” not accepting that standard formats exist for a reason.
  • I spent so long trying to figure out HOW to write that I’m certain 20 hours passed before I finished a 1,000-word article.

You could argue I was learning how to “make it,” “putting in my sweat and tears,” as it were. And some of that is true. But, as my grade 11 teacher said, pushing harder on a pen cap to take it off the pen may be working harder, but it isn’t working smarter.

No matter the goal, a journey is par for the course. But if you’re going to go on that journey, take the highway, not the country road.

How Groups Help

Look at the goals you’re trying to achieve, then take three minutes to watch this video that illustrates, using jelly beans, how many days in your life you have to achieve them.

Now ask yourself this question:

Why on earth would you waste time re-inventing the wheel and trying to achieve your goals on your own?

7 Suggestions to Get the Most Benefit From Your Group

I’ve been a member of a group for non-fiction writers for, I think, seven years now. So it’s my turn to pay it forward and share with you advice that will help you get the most out of your group.

  1. Show up. Even if the meeting topics don’t sound interesting, show up. You may be reading the writing of someone who makes even a visit from Elton John sound like you’re going to watch the fireplace channel the entire time. You joined the group for the people, but you won’t meet them if you don’t show up.
  2. Bring questions. This will help you stay focused during your meeting. If you don’t get a chance to ask them, see if they can be emailed to members. After all, you’ve joined this group to get something out of it: Don’t sit on the sidelines and wait to be asked if you have any questions.
  3. Volunteer, if you can. This is how you meet more members in larger organizations, e.g., national ones, and how you get to better know some of the members in your local group.
  4. Know your members. That way, if you have questions you’d rather not ask publicly, you can ask them privately. If your group is large, focus on getting to know a few, and then branch out.
  5. Give your opinion if asked. If someone asks your opinion, assume they actually want it. You can show respect and be honest at the same time, and, speaking as the leader of my group, I want to know what my members think so I can improve their experience. In other words, don’t be afraid to speak up.
  6. Take home one action item after every meeting. And commit to completing it (or at least starting it) before the next meeting. This cadence will help you assess your investment (even if it’s only time): the membership is either helping you or wasting your time and possibly your money, but you won’t know what it’s doing if you don’t put what you’re learning into practice.
  7. Be prepared to say something about yourself. Most groups start off with some informal chit chat before everyone gets down to business. Having something to share in those situations will help others get to know you.

Take advantage of your membership, even if you have to push yourself at the start. You joined for a reason, and you won’t see any benefits if you don’t jump in.

In other words, don’t wait for the group to do something for you. Take an active role and get something out of it yourself.

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Do You “Risk It All” for Your Dreams?

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Photo by Alex wong on Unsplash

I’ve been reading self-help books on and off for years, and I wonder how they can promise that you can “have it all.” However, I also find these inspiring, and they often get me to think about my life in much different terms, and I think I’ve finally figured out how to balance my dreams with my life.

I’m reading The Power of Intention by Wayne Dyer right now. I came across this advice:

That silent inner knowing will never leave you alone. You may try to ignore it and pretend it doesn’t exist, but in honest, alone moments of contemplative communion with yourself, you sense the emptiness waiting for you to fill it with your music. It wants you to take the risks involved, and to ignore your ego and the egos of others who tell you that an easier, safer, or more secure path is best for you. (page 152)

I love the book, but I find advice like this potentially misleading: he’s suggesting you don’t listen to your inner doubts and just take the plunge towards your dreams. For me, that would involve stopping all work and just focusing on writing fiction, which doesn’t bring in any money until you’ve developed somewhat of a following.

Tell that career decision to the bank that wants to take back your house.

Stay Safe

On the other hand, though, is the “stay safe” advice he talks of. There are varying degrees of this, at least in my experience. Here’s one side of the spectrum: An older relative of mine was once worried about the whole-grain, no-sugar diet my parents were raising me and my sister on (in the 80s and 90s, before it became trendy). The relative thought I’d have a hard time finding a husband by being on that diet. I eat sugar now, but I still prefer whole-grain baking and cooking to regular, and yet I somehow managed to find a husband AND have children with him. The relative meant well, but this is one version of the “safe” advice that Wayne Dyer is speaking of.

Here’s the other side: “You have a family to look after. Why on earth would you quit your job to become an artist?”

To which the person might respond, “Because I just know in my heart that it’s what I was meant to do.”

That last statement may be true – many of us push off what we’ve always felt to be our calling because others told us we’d never make a living with it, whatever it is.

But where are you in your life? Do you have a mortgage or rent to pay? Kids to get through university? A weekly grocery bill to feed others besides just you?

Yes, right? So, what to do?

Think of the Possibilities

Don’t be afraid of blue skies dreaming. Dream, write it down, dream some more. Many of these self-help authors are good at putting you into the right frame of mind for that. You let your mind go free with all the things you dream of, all the things you want to do and to have, and start envisioning this new version of your life.

Now, this is where I would halt the process: Before you go any further, you need to look at your life as it is now and start setting things up to work towards your dream.

You want to become a master painter? Find an appropriate painting class, sign yourself up, and squeeze in 10 minutes a day to practice.

Want to work your way up in your company? Talk to managers and ask them how they got to where they are. Then start emulating what they do. (But make it your own; as the saying goes, “Just be yourself; everyone else is taken.”)

Want to change your career? Find more responsibilities in your current job that are applicable to that career change.

I don’t want to make it sound like these ideas are easy. You may have to shift your schedule around, or risk standing out from the crowd at work…and I wonder if these are the risks Wayne Dyer is really talking about but not explaining? There are legitimate concerns surrounding any major life-changing decision, but there are also fears that hold us back, like a thick woollen blanket wrapped around you: it’s warm and cozy but immobilizing.

The trick is to differentiate the two categories.

What About Bob? Baby Steps…

I don’t know your situation, of course, but I do believe that if you want to change something for the better, you will find a way to make it happen. For me, it was deciding to forego TV after the kids were in bed and spending that time on my novel.

Would I like to spend part of each writing fiction, at a time when my brain is more functional? Yes. But I chose to have a family and a mortgage. To just drop all my streams of income to “follow my dreams” would be hugely irresponsible.

But that doesn’t make following my dreams impossible.

Don’t feel guilty or frustrated if you aren’t living your dream life. Whatever life you are living, so long as it’s generally helpful to you and others, can probably teach you something that will benefit the life you are dreaming of. But figure out what those baby steps are that can get you moving in the right direction: the real risk, in the end, may be just prying open the door.

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Being Interviewed for an Article? A Few Tips

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Photo by Matthew Kane on Unsplash

Whether you’ve just launched your book, are announcing a new tour, or celebrating your next opening night, you’ll likely find yourself talking to media at some point or other. I interview people from many industries for the magazine articles I write, and some interview better than others.

Why does this matter? Because it’ll affect what information I can use for the article.

I’ve got a few tips here for you so you, too, can become a better interviewee.

Watch Your Pronouns

If you’re talking about two guys and a gal and you keep saying “he,” the writer may go back to her notes and suddenly realize she’s not entirely sure which “he” you’re referring to. Although the writer may try to reach you for clarification, if she can’t, then she’ll likely go for one of the following solutions:

  • Strike the quote, no matter how good it is.
  • Assume which person it refers to and change the quote.

In my opinion, the first one is the only option unless context is very clear. If I’m not 100% certain whom the pronoun is referring to, I will definitely cut the quote. Because I do much of my writing evenings and weekends when those I interview aren’t always reachable, this means the information doesn’t make it in to the article.

Don’t Use the Writer as a Subject

It’s annoying when I get used as an example. Not because I’m insulted at all, but because I can’t use the quote. Using the writer as a subject looks like this: “Let’s say Lori is trying to improve her pirouette, so she focuses on her teacher’s old advice of pulling up straight. But this causes Lori to pull up her shoulders…”

I’ve had phenomenal illustrations given to me this way, quotable material. But I can’t quote it because my name’s in it. (And no, I won’t change the name. I have no issues changing a pronoun if I’m 100% certain of the antecedent, but I won’t change the name.)

Yes, the writer can call you up to clarify or ask your permission to change the name, but again, this is an extra step that may not happen.

Let the Writer Jump in Once in a While

Although limiting your answers to two sentences can make it difficult for the writer to get any quotable material, if the writer hasn’t asked you anything in five minutes, wrap up your thought and then pause. Some writers are too polite to interrupt, some need a moment for formulate the next question (and that’s hard to do when someone’s talking), and to be honest, it can get really boring listening to someone talk for 45 minutes straight.

Treat the interview like a conversation, and just ease into it. Yes, you should be talking the most, but let the writer participate.

Understand Time and Space Allotment

Unless you’re told otherwise, assume that others will also be interviewed for the article. I consider it impolite to ask who, but I think there’s nothing wrong with asking how long the article is.

Knowing the assigned length of the article will give you an idea of how much information the writer is looking for. For example, if the article is 1200 words, even if you’re the focus, the interview will likely last only 30 minutes or so. You’ll have certain information you want to share, so prepare with that time limit in mind.

And if the writers says they’ll only need five minutes of your time, plan accordingly.

Have Respect for the Writer’s Time

I generally like interviewing, because I get to meet some really interesting people. I expect the person I’m talking to to share information, anecdotes, personal reflections, and the like. However, even for a 1,200-word article, I don’t want someone’s list of their personal 10 Commandments.

(I once interviewed someone who kept me on the phone for two hours, even though they were one of three people I was interviewing for a 1,200-word article and knew that. Needless to say, I was livid, and I certainly wasn’t going to transcribe the entire two hours. If that subject had wanted something important in the article, there was a good chance I missed it.)

Although erring on  the side of more information is generally a good idea, you can go too far.

Just Think of Your Own Projects

In the end, it comes down to the same guidelines that likely apply your own art: stay on topic, keep the overall framework in mind, and respect everyone’s time. It’ll help you get the information you need into the media and hopefully bring you more leads down the road.

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What is Good Writing?

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Photo by Hisu lee on Unsplash

No one definite answer to “What makes for good writing?” exists. Some people focus on mechanics, others on plot. Some label a piece of writing as “good” simply if it holds their interest.

However, when it comes to the debate of what makes a good writer, I often feel one element gets ignored: context.

Context is why a very strong report writer, who excels at sifting through information and can organize it in such a concise way that the right information is presented at the right time to the right eyes, may suddenly become a “bad” writer if asked to write poetry.

Literary = Good, Commercial = Bad?

Let’s say you’re reading a commercial-style writing giant, like Danielle Steele, and you’re comparing her to a literary-style writing giant, like Alice Munro. Judging by mechanics, I’d say both are equal. If we judge by plot, some will prefer Steele, others Munro. Same if we talk about what holds your interest.

If I reflect on my own experience reading both authors, Steele’s was the book I opened up on a sleepless night, staying awake until it was done (and paying for it at work the next day). Munro’s book (a collection of her short stories) was far too complex to read with half a brain in the middle of the night. I also couldn’t finish it, because I eventually lost interest.

Does that make Steele the good writer and Munro the bad one? Absolutely not. We’re not talking about popularity here, and both certainly have very large followings. (Not to mention, Munro received the Nobel Prize for Literature.)

Munro writes deeply layered portraits of people, real people, with desirable and undesirable traits. What bored me was, in part, the absence of a novel; I couldn’t get deeper into her characters. (I know she’s written one, but I haven’t read it yet.)

Steele’s plot moved at a fast clip, and I found myself easily cheering for the protagonist. Her writing was tight, she clearly knew how to tell a story, and her characters were interesting. But I was left feeling like I hardly knew any of them, because she only wrote what was needed to further the speedy plot, and nothing more.

How This All Helps

When I judge if someone’s a good writer (and let’s face it, many of us do), I still include the basics among my criteria: conciseness, strong command of grammar, an appropriate vocabulary, respect for the reader, staying on point, and many others.

But context is why a chatty blogger can get away with not being very concise, a technical writer doesn’t need similes and metaphors, and millions of viewers accept that people just break out into song and dance in a musical.

There is most definitely not one clear definition of what makes a good writer, and I don’t purport to have the answer, either. But I think many writers would agree that what makes a good writer in one genre or style does not necessarily apply in other genres and styles, like a brilliant comedic actor who suddenly falters in a drama.

What do you consider when you’re debating if someone is a good writer?

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Hertha Mueller: A Writer You Should Get to Know

I came across German-Romanian writer Hertha Müller* (“Mueller” in English) about two months ago. I’m embarrassed to say, I had no idea who she was, despite having two degrees in German Studies. In my defence, though, I stopped studying in 2005, and it wasn’t until 2009 that she won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

She’s in her 60s now, and I believe lives in Sweden. Let me introduce you to her and what the idea of freedom for the arts means.

Who was the Guy and his Wife being Shot?

Mueller was born in the 1950s in one of the last leftover German villages in Romania. (The majority of ethnic Germans had been deported after WWII to either Germany or the labour camps in Russia.) I remember once at Christmas being at my grandmother’s – she and my grandfather were also Germans from Romania but (thank God) never returned after the war – and she had her eyes absolutely glued to the television. (My grandfather had been dead a few years by then.)

A man and his wife had been captured and were being executed. The news was full of lots of death, so I didn’t get why this execution was so important. (I also didn’t get what was so important about a graffitied, cement wall in Berlin and why its destruction was so celebrated.)

All I recall was that she said his name was Nicolae Ceaușescu and she was glad he was gone.

I eventually learned he was a dictator, but that was it. Only recently, with reading Mueller, have I begun to understand what that fully means.

Germans in Romania

I’m reading a book whose title can be literally translated as My Fatherland is an Apple Core: Conversations with Hertha Mueller. (The title refers to a poem or song that I’m not particularly familiar with.)

It’s unfortunate the book isn’t available in English, because she describes in exacting, vivid detail what it’s like to be a writer in a brutal dictatorship that’s trying to silence you and your friends.

As you can likely imagine, being an ethnic German in Eastern Europe during and after World War II wasn’t an enviable position to be in, regardless of which side you supported. After all was said and done, only a handful of Germans remained in these areas. I forget the exact figures, but the German populations decreased by the millions, partly due to deportation to those Russian labour camps, where many died.

Mueller’s mother was schlepped off to one of these camps but returned. (Whether she was lucky was debatable.) Mueller was eventually born and grew up in one of the few remaining German towns in Romania. It might be likened to Mennonite or Amish colonies, where everyone speaks their form of German and continues on with life as they know it, often sans electricity and telephone (though not by choice in this case).

Sneaky and Sly Like a Fox

Hertha Mueller had a fox fur on the floor between her bed and wardrobe, something she and her mother had purchased together from a neighbouring town. She says in the book:

The village tailor was supposed to make a fur collar and cuffs for a coat from it. It was a whole, flat fox with snout and paws and shiny claws. It was far too beautiful to cut up. I kept it for many years as a carpet. One day, I was mopping the floor, and the tail slid to the side. It had been cut off. I convinced myself at that time that it had torn off on its own. I didn’t believe myself that it was an exact, very straight cut, not a tear. (Page 86 of my ebook version via OnLeihe.)

She put the tail back where it belonged. A few weeks later, the first hind leg had been cut off. Later, the second one. Thereafter, one of the front legs. She describes that the cut-off limb was always placed on the fox’s stomach. This took place over months, but during those months, she always entered her apartment and immediately checked if a part of the fox had been severed.

The secret police (the “Securitate”) had a key. They wouldn’t break in, ever, they would just quietly enter. She said they wanted you to know they could come in whenever they wanted to.

Eggs and Onions and Hair

In another episode of intimidation (there were very, very many), she was on her way to get her hair cut. A police officer asked her for her ID and then whisked her off into a hidden room, where she was questioned, accused of blatantly false crimes, and forced to eat eight hard-boiled eggs and an onion. At one point, the agent picked a hair off her clothing, and she said, “Put that hair back, it belongs to me” (page 97 on my Onleihe e-book version). She said he actually put the hair back.

But it Didn’t Stop There

Even after she was allowed to leave in 1987 for Germany, the intimidations and games continued: they stamped her passport with February 29, 1987. That drove the German authorities nuts, she says, because it wasn’t a leap year.

The threats continued. The interviewer also mentions a situation where a Romanian operative was stopped at the German border, allegedly with instructions to kill several who were speaking out against Ceaușescu. Mueller’s address was on his list.

The dictatorship – from what she can gather – even blackmailed a very good friend of hers who had been diagnosed with cancer and was in its last stage. The friend was required to travel to Germany to visit Mueller. It didn’t take long for Mueller to figure out why her friend had come: the passport has visas for many different countries, a kind of passport that was not given out in Romania. Once she called her friend on it, her friend spoke openly and said Mueller would find her name on the death list if she didn’t stop speaking out against Ceaușescu.

We Need Our Openness

I’ve gained a whole new appreciation for our press, publishing industry, and the breadth of opinions out there. It’s not perfect. But it’s not what Hertha Müller had to contend with just to get her voice out there. I know we don’t all agree on how much freedom the press should have, what fake news really is, and how much censorship is too much.

(I recall reading that Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree had been banned by school boards in the past because the tree talked. I draw the line for my kids at Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the current cartoons: my kids don’t need to learn a list of names to call people they don’t like.)

But we need to continue having open discussions about all of this, so long as our discussions show respect for the other side. I know there are thousands, likely even millions of artists out there in countries whose work is censored for something as simple as saying they don’t like the government.

It can be frustrating reading comments from people who disagree with you, especially when those comments are rude (and I, too, wish they would be more respectful). I don’t know if this helps, but as I read through this book, it certainly helps me realize that we at least have that right to say something.

*I didn’t add a photo here: the topic is serious, and I’m not an artist who can create something fitting. In addition, I didn’t want to use a photo of Hertha Müller, because, honestly, I feel guilty about using her picture to help promote my blog.

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Sore Shoulders, Motivation, and Writing

ocean_mountainsPhysiotherapy consists of usually gentle but difficult exercises to help heal a physical injury. Weightlifting consists of generally harsh but usually easy exercises to help build muscle.

And they should be combined carefully.

The Pain of Writing

I’ve been undergoing physiotherapy for the past two months because of pain in my right shoulder that travelled invisibly through my arm and showed up in my hand: it hurt to lift my arm even to the mouse from the armrest, and eventually a sharp pain that felt like an earwig pinching my bone appeared in my finger. Overuse of my right arm at the computer was likely part of the problem.

Weighty Issues

In early February, I’d also picked up weightlifting again, something I’d sworn off of last year. I’d reflected some more on my love/hate relationship with it and am now certain my approach was guaranteeing my failure. I switched routines, the time of day I did it at, and even the days of the week, and voila! I love it again.

A Little Too Motivated

Now let’s put the two together:

My physiotherapist never asked me to stop weightlifting, and in fact encouraged me to continue, so long as I was finding it helpful, doing it properly, and wasn’t injuring myself. (I was also seeing a chiropractor for some of the symptoms, and he said the same.)

I was pain-free for weeks.

However, physiotherapy doesn’t speak to the ego: there’s nothing sexy about being on all fours in some tilted, awkward position to strengthen my shoulder. Weightlifting, though, does, and my ego became very motivated last week.

In short, I upped weights before my right arm and shoulder were ready, and the sensations in my hand returned the following day, though they were less severe.

I picked up more than I could lift.

Too Many Projects?

In my 20s, I had a similar problem with my life: I’d take on one project, and even if it wasn’t going so well, I’d add another, and then another, and then another. Somewhere in there, I broke. Why? Because I didn’t force myself to take a break, re-organize, and re-evaluate my situation.

Maybe this has happened to you in your creative endeavours: inspiration hits you for a project (a new song, story, dance, what have you),  you start, you get a little bored, your inspiration weakens, and then a new project comes along and the cycle starts all over again.

After awhile, you’re stuck in a quagmire of half-created creations, all begging for your attention, and all weakening you as you try and bulldoze your way through it all.

Slowing Down

Starting yesterday, I lowered my weights and committed myself to heating and icing my shoulder at least once a day, ideally twice. Starting today, I’ve promised myself to faithfully do the prescribed exercises each morning, even if it means waking up 15 minutes earlier. I’ll ice my shoulder afterwards whenever feasible. I also massage a cream into the area. I’d like to think it’s helping.

After a week or so, I’ll add some more exercises to my routine as my therapist recommended. Once those become easy, I’ll try increasing the weights again, but only then and not before.

There’s nothing wrong with putting on the brakes when it comes to your projects. You haven’t failed. If you’re worried about forgetting them, sit down for an hour or more (whatever’s appropriate) for each project, and write down what you still need to accomplish. Set those lists aside, and return to them when you’re able to.

What’s Really Important to You?

Ask yourself, “Which of my projects is the most important right now?” Then focus your attention on completing it. Yes, increasing my weights makes me feel good, but exactly how good will I feel if I have to stop completely for serious physio because I took it too far? My goal is to increase my muscle mass and my strength. Slowing down right now supports that. Increasing the weights doesn’t.

Setting the other projects momentarily aside is like lowering your weights. Focussing on one project and accomplishing something towards it most days is like doing regular exercises to strengthen the injured body part. Once that body part is strong, your entire body can handle the entire load.

Completing one project at a time may even help calm your nerves: you’ll be juggling fewer to-do items. Moreover, whatever you learn from that project can be transferred to the next one. If there’s any overlap, that next project may even be easier than if you’d tried to complete it concurrently with the first one.

Having a million things on the go at once is sometimes necessary, but if you’re finding yourself stressed, maybe you’ve pushed yourself a bit to far. Slow down, back off, regroup, take some time to plan, take a well-deserved break, and then start again.

Starting again may sound scary, but in my experience, it’s been anything but and always beneficial.