Could not writing be a good thing?

Bill Hayes on not writingReading time: Just over 1 minute

This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world to find websites, books and articles to help other writers. Today I discuss an article on NOT writing by Bill Hayes….

It amuses me that my topic for today’s post is a New York Times article carrying the sobering headline “On Not Writing.” Could not writing ever be a good thing, one might ask? OK, let me be honest here. I’m the one asking.

But, in fact, writer Bill Hayes, makes a compelling argument. I especially appreciate that he’s a certified personal fitness trainer. This is because I see so many parallels between writing and exercising. The need to do it regularly. The wisdom of giving yourself very specific goals. The benefits of working with a trainer or editor. (Similarly, I see many parallels between writing and making music.)

Here is how he puts it:

Don’t work through the pain; it will only hurt. Give yourself sufficient time to refresh.

How long should this period be? What is true for muscle fibers is true for creative ones as well. My rule of thumb in fitness training is 2-to-1: For every two days of intense workouts, a day off. However, “in cases of sustained high-level output,” according to my manual, full recovery may take longer. This is what had happened with me. I needed a really, really long rest.

Then I woke one day, and a line came to me. It didn’t slip away this time but stayed put. I followed it, like a path. It led to another, then another. Soon, pieces started lining up in my head, like cabs idling curbside, ready to go where I wanted to take them. 

I’ve always argued that incubation is necessary for all writers. Hayes simply endorses an incubation period that’s much, much longer.It took him five years to write his 1,75-word New York Times essay, he says.

I think it was worth the wait.

No Responses/Posted September 1st, 2014 in Writing about writing

How to comment on my blog

how to comment on my blogReading time: Less than 2 minutes

If you want to ask me something or share your opinion of what I’m writing about, here’s a step-by-step guide for how to comment on my blog…

Readers sometimes tell me they’re unable to comment on my blog. I’ve spoken to my webmaster about this and he assures me that Disqus — the software my website uses — is the easiest system available.

Still, if my readers are not happy, I’m not happy. So today I’m offering a detailed tutorial on how to comment on my blog. This will stay on my website in perpetuity (well, at least as long as I’m living, breathing and writing).

Here are the directions (I’m giving you lots of detail but the process is really simple and should take you less than 30 seconds):

Step 1: Open a blog entry by clicking on its headline. (If you’re simply on the master blog page,, or my home page,, you won’t be able to comment. Make sure you’re inside the actual blog entry by clicking on the headline.) Then, scroll to the very end of the entry (below the “More from my site” photos) until you see the comments section, just as I’ve shown in the picture above.

how to comment on my blogStep 2: Click on the box saying “Start the discussion.” As soon as you’ve done that you should see a bunch of coloured circles pop up. These include: a bright blue circle with a white D for disqus, a dark-blue circle with a white F for Facebook, a white bird on a blue background for Twitter and a white G on a red background for Google+. You can safely IGNORE all of these circles and, instead, click on the box saying “Name” (to the right.)

Step 3: As soon as you click on the Name box, the page will expand and you’ll see a new line, reading “I’d rather post as a guest.” Simply click on this box (I’ve marked it with a red arrow, below) and a tick mark will appear. As soon as you’ve done this, the password box will disappear.

how to comment on my blogStep 4: Finally, enter your name and email. Note that you can use a fake name if you like and the email will NOT be public. I’m the only person who will have access to it. You have not created an account. You are simply posting as a guest.

I treasure my interactions with readers and I work hard to respond to every comment you make.

Please, if you have any difficulty with commenting or with these directions, email me and I’ll do everything I can to help.


No Responses/Posted August 29th, 2014 in Gray-Grant Communications

Resembling R2-D2′s neckline…

Nathan HellerReading time: Less than 1 minute

I like to share interesting pieces of figurative language I encounter in my reading. I write today about a metaphor from Nathan Heller.

I love San Francisco. My husband and I went there for our honeymoon and returned for our 10th wedding anniversary. (The remarkable aspect of that, was that we left 5-year-old triplets at home. It wasn’t so much time to revel in the delicately slanted early summer light, as a time to sleep.)

We hope to go again soon. Thus, I read a New Yorker article by Nathan Heller, “California Screaming,” with particular interest. In it, Heller explores why many SF locals dislike the tech industry so intensely.

Nathan HellerThe issue, of course, is gentrification. I live in Vancouver, a city being similarly gentrified — although for entirely different reasons. In our case, it’s the influx of Asian money. In the case of SF, it’s the influx of dollars from companies like Apple and Google.

But apart from Heller’s argument, with which I agreed, I really liked his writing. Here, for example, is a metaphor that struck me:

In the spiritual geography of San Francisco, Davies Symphony Hall —a glass-and-concrete half rotunda much resembling R2-D2′s neckline— sits between hills steep with layered mansions and the urban basin where the city’s gritty elements now rest.

When I thought of R2-D2, I hadn’t recalled much of a neck. But when I Googled photos of Davis Hall (one shown, above), I could see what Heller was driving at. Doesn’t the similarity strike you, too?

2 Responses/Posted August 28th, 2014 in Figurative language

What’s a cagoule?

cagouleReading time: Less than 1 minute

Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: cagoule.

I seldom encounter words that offer me terra incognita. But a word in the very fine novel, Landing Gear, by Kate Pullinger, took me into just such a wild land. Here is the sentence in which it appeared:

It was windy along the river and rain spat at her intermittently, but she kept up a good pace and was soon sweating inside her cagoule.

Obviously, the word referred to a piece of clothing. But what exactly was it. A sweater? A jacket? It beat me. Even though I’m someone who lives — and walks, daily — in Vancouver, the rain capital of North America.

It turns out that a cagoule is the British term (Pullinger lives in Britain) for a lightweight, weatherproof raincoat, with a hood. I call such an item an anorak, which is an Inuit word, but perhaps that’s because I’m Canadian. Usually it doesn’t have a lining and typically it’s somewhere between hip and knee length.

The source of the word is French (from the French cagoule, meaning hood) but, interestingly, there are new fewer than four possible spellings: cagoulecagoulkagoule or kagool. I like the sound of the word, I must admit.

No Responses/Posted August 27th, 2014 in Word of the week

Do you let others help you (write)?

accepting help from othersReading time: About 3 minutes

My husband and I recently returned from a three-week trip to Europe. Here is part 3 of a three-part series on each of the cities we visited. Today I focus on Vienna with a piece on the importance of accepting help from others. (Part 1, on Amsterdam, and part 2 on Prague are both still available for those who missed them.)

I’m not the kind of person who’s found it easy to let others help me. When I was younger and found myself lost, I walked blocks out of my way rather than ask someone for directions.

If I was in a store looking for something, I combed the aisles mercilessly before daring to trouble a clerk.

If I needed help in the library, I spent hours trolling through the card catalogue before asking a librarian — someone whose very job it was to help me — for assistance.

My attitude was born out of shyness. I was painfully reserved as a child — and it’s fortunate that when I had my own children, they were triplets. Nothing like a tsunami to force you to ask for help. But as I’ve aged, I’ve become more comfortable with the idea of letting friends, and even strangers lend a hand.

In fact, that’s exactly how we ended up in Vienna.

When my husband and I planned to go to the Czech Republic this summer — to see our son perform in an opera —  we knew we couldn’t travel all that distance for only one or two cities. We wanted a week in another European hub. Someplace interesting and not too hot, we thought. For a long time, Ireland sat at the top of our list.

Then, one workday I went out for a writing break. As I sat in a restaurant, reading my book and sipping my tea, I heard someone call my name. It was a family friend. Dave and I sat together and talked amiably about our plans for the summer. And when he heard about our trip to Europe he spoke up. “Please, stay at my apartment in Vienna,” he said.

I was gobsmacked. How did Dave have an apartment in Vienna? Turns out he’d inherited it from his grandmother, a Hungarian baroness who’d immigrated to North America in 1956. The story as to how Dave and his sister finally acquired the place is as complex as a Rubic’s cube. It involves the terrible treatment of Jews, greedy land managers and admirable chutzpah on Dave’s part.

I felt predictably uncomfortable accepting his generosity but the chance to see a world class city like Vienna was too tempting to pass up. Score 1 for accepting help from friends.

As our departure day approached I surveyed colleagues and clients to see if anyone could refer us to someone who lived in Vienna. Sure enough, one of my clients could. So on August 1 we headed to the Vienna University of Music and the Performing Arts and met with Katharina and Gerda, both employees there.

Kindly they spent the entire day with us, walking us around the city, showing the sights. They even arranged for a tour of the Musikverein (home of the Vienna Philharmonic) and the Vienna State Opera, both breathtakingly beautiful. At dinnertime they took us to a local heuriger (pictured above).  This is a bar, usually found in a garden, where local wine and a simple buffet are served. And as we wrapped up our fabulous day by walking us by the city hall so we could see the 24th annual film festival. This amazing event runs every summer evening showing opera, ballet, pop and jazz on a gigantic screen. No charge! We estimated 5,000 people there each of the two nights we dropped by.  Improbably, we suddenly felt like locals. Score 1 for the kindness of strangers.

When I speak with clients of mine, I often notice they’re reluctant to call on the kindness of family — never mind friends or strangers — for the time to do their writing. Here’s what I say: Don’t ask and you won’t get. Make a request, however, and you’ll have a chance of getting the time you need.

If you have a deeply held desire to write share that wish with your family and ask for their help. If you’re upfront, respectful — and equally giving yourself — they’re likely to support you.

Don’t hesitate to give back, of course. For example, we bought Dave a nice expensive gift and left it in the apartment. And when Katharine and Gerda come to Vancouver next summer we’ll show them around and host a dinner party for them.

But also welcome the help you receive. It’s not a sign of weakness. It’s just part of the back-and-forth that makes the world a better place.

Are you able to ask others for the time you need to write? We can all help each other so please share your thoughts with my readers and me, below. If you comment by August 31, 2014 I’ll put your name in a draw for a copy of the insightful book 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People by Susan M. Weinschenk. If you don’t see the comments box, click here and then scroll to the end.

Photo by Eric Watts

22 Responses/Posted August 26th, 2014 in Power Writing

Adventures in extreme reading

Phyllis RoseReading time: Less than 2 minutes

This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world to find websites, books and articles to help other writers. Today I discuss a terrific new book written by Phyllis Rose…

Anyone who knows me is aware that my nose is frequently in a text of  one sort or other. I read the newspaper while eating breakfast, I peruse the New Yorker before bedtime each night and I race through at least one book a week (more when I’m on holiday.)

Thus, when my friend Hester gave me The Shelf: Adventures in Extreme Reading as a birthday gift, I was delighted to meet an erudite, entertaining and often funny author who had set for herself a remarkable reading challenge. She read her way through a random shelf of her New York library’s fiction section and then wrote about the experience.

Rose had selected the shelf representing authors LEQ to LES because it contained one classic she wanted to read (A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov), it included books by both men and women and it represented a wide range of writing, from classic to contemporary.

Wisely, she doesn’t just focus on the books on this shelf but uses them as an excuse to share her wider views about reading, writing and literature in general. I particularly liked the way she sought out some of the still-living writers (notably, Rhoda Lerman) and I enjoyed Rose’s detailed explanation of the way in which libraries “weed” or “de-accession” their books.

But, mainly, I appreciated her passion for the act of reading. She writes:

Every time you read a work of fiction, you are committing an acte gratuit, a gratuitous act that proves your freedom. Novels and stories, as Jane Smiley has pointed out, can only attract, never coerce. “To read fiction is to do something voluntary and free, to exercise choice over and over.”

Learn more about Phyllis Rose. Better yet, read her book. (Either this one or Parallel Lives, which Nora Ephron apparently re-read every five years or so.)  I know Rose won’t mind if you take her book out of the library instead of buying it. That’s because books borrowed from the library at least twice a year don’t become deaccessioned.

No Responses/Posted August 25th, 2014 in Writing about writing

A portrait crossed with a ventriloquist’s dummy

Kris BulcroftReading time: About 1 minute

Kris Bulcroft doesn’t look as harsh as her sculpture suggests. But she doesn’t behave with the authority of a really smart leader either…

Here’s a basic rule about leadership: If you have thin skin, stay out of the business. Kris Bulcroft, president and vice-chancellor of Capilano University in North Vancouver, doesn’t seem to understand this rule.

Here’s another: Pick your battles carefully. She doesn’t appear to get that one, either. When she announced a closure of the school’s studio arts, textiles and interactive design programs, teachers and students were understandably upset. That goes with the territory. And, for the record, I support her right to make unpopular decisions.

But when one of the teachers, George Rammell, made a caricature of Bulcroft, she appeared to feel it crossed some sort of bizarre Maginot line. Campus security seized the sculpture in May, broke it into shards and last week sent it back to the sculptor (pictured above). It was a really dumb decision to destroy the artwork— after all, that only drew more attention to it. If Bulcroft had taken a deep breath and maturely ignored the piece, no one would have thought more about it.

Now that it’s back in the hands of the sculptor, however, he’s taking the shards and is transforming them into a new sculpture. And he already has Vancouver art galleries lining up to display it. The new work is less of a caricature and more of a “portrait crossed with a ventriloquist’s dummy,” Rammel said — rather memorably, I thought.

The whole episode recalls another piece of advice that leaders in a crisis to consider really need to remember: Never pick fights with anyone who buys ink by the barrel (or who knows how to get others to spill it.)

No Responses/Posted August 22nd, 2014 in Gray-Grant Communications

He didn’t have a prayer…

Janet Maslin reviews book on Clare Booth LuceReading time: About 1 minute

I like to share interesting pieces of figurative language I encounter in my reading. I write today about an effective — and amusing — metaphor from Janet Maslin. 

I pay $3.82 per week for a digital subscription to the New York Times. To me, it’s worth every penny for ease with which it allows me to read (largely on my smart phone while I’m standing in line somewhere) and for the very fine writing it makes available to me.

Recently, I enjoyed a Janet Maslin review of a biography on Clare Booth Luce (pictured adjacent), The Price of Fame, by  Sylvia Jukes Morris. Clare Booth, was intelligent and ambitious before she married publishing magnate Henry Luce in 1935. But with him her ambitions soared.

An actress, a writer, a politician and a diplomat, Clare Luce was a natural multi-tasker who managed to do it all with considerable aplomb and social grace.

While some describe her marriage to Luce as happy, Morris has a different take. Here’s how Maslin describes it:

Her marriage to Henry Luce had long since become sexless and distant, although this book describes Clare in full battle mode, taking no prisoners, when Henry tried to obtain an actual divorce. She had by that time become an impassioned Roman Catholic, and her husband hoped to use that as reason for the marriage to end. He didn’t have a prayer. 

What makes the image so effective, I think, is the juxtaposition of two longish sentences (32 and 24 words respectively) against a sharp, five-word one. Of course it’s also perfect the way Maslin links the word “prayer” to Luce’s religious beliefs.

No Responses/Posted August 21st, 2014 in Figurative language

What does marmoreal mean?

William BurroughsReading time: Less than 1 minute

Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: marmoreal.

I’ve never read anything by William S. Burroughs, not even Naked Lunch (1959), but when flipping through a stack of my beloved New Yorkers, just before handing them off to a friend, I discovered a story on a new Burroughs biography. The piece was written by Peter Schjeldahl, the American art critic, poet and educator.

Here is a sentence of his that caught my eye and gave me my word of the week, marmoreal.

His prose is a palimpsest of echoes, ranging from [T.S.] Eliot’s “Preludes” and Rhapsody on a Windy Night” (lines like “Midnight shakes the memory/As a madman shakes a dead geranium” are Burroughsian before the fact) to Raymond Chandler’s marmoreal wisecracks and Herbert Huncke’s jive.

I’d never before seen the word marmoreal, or if I had, I’d forgotten about it. Turns out the word means “made of or likened to marble,” something I wouldn’t have guessed. Turns out it’s from the Latin marmoreus, meaning “of marble” and also from the Greek marmaros of the same meaning.

And if you’re wondering about the equally tricky word palimpsest, well I handled that one a few years ago.

Next job? To read Naked Lunch.

No Responses/Posted August 20th, 2014 in Word of the week

Writing advice from the Czech president

separating writing and editingReading time: About 2 minutes

My husband and I recently returned from a three-week trip to Europe. Here is part 2 of a three-part series on each of the cities we visited. Today I focus on Prague with a piece on the importance of separating writing and editing. (Part 1, on Amsterdam, is still available for those who missed it.)

Canada, where I live, has some of the strongest tobacco-control legislation in the world. This delights me because, while I sympathize with smokers, I loathe the smell of tobacco smoke. It makes me want to gag.

I worked in daily newspapers 25 years ago and smoking was still rife in offices then. I used to have to have a shower after work every day and throw all my clothes in the wash because they always reeked of smoke.

Funnily enough, this same issue resurfaced during our recent trip to Europe. The buildings were beautiful, the people interesting and kind, the museums stunning, the history invigorating. But, oh, the smoking…

According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the rate of smoking in the Czech Republic is 24 percent.  Given the number of smokers I saw puffing in restaurants (often while sitting underneath “no smoking” signs) I’d say that’s more like wishful thinking. (Just like if you enquire of your children how much homework they’ve done or ask adults how hard they’re exercising, they’ll almost always over-estimate it.)

To me, the smoking rate seemed more like 50% (and, I suppose this is even possible because the OECD stats refer only to daily smokers. I’m guessing the more casual smokers light up when going out for drinks or meals or while on holiday.)

Back at our rental apartment in Prague one evening, I decided to do some research on smoking. That’s when I discovered a screwball interview with the Czech president, Miloš Zeman. In it he opined that addiction to smoking is harmful only to children.

“I myself only started smoking when I was 27 years old, when my body had fully developed, and tobacco could no longer harm it,” he said. “So let me recommend your children to do the same: wait until the age of 27, and then smoke without any risk whatsoever.” Yes, he really said those things.

Zeman made his remarks in 2013 in the town of Kutná Hora, some 45 miles east of Prague. In fact, we even visited this place to see the fabulous and little bit creepy Sedlec Ossuary, also known as the bone church. This is because the skeletons of more than 40,000 people — mostly victims of the Plague (not smokers!) — have been artistically arranged to “decorate” the place. See my husband’s photo, above. Zeman was speaking to workers at a cigarette plant so perhaps he was simply trolling for votes. But as soon as I read his colossally uneducated remarks, it gave me an idea.

We writers need to be exactly as blinkered as the Czech president when working on our first drafts. We don’t want to look for excellence or truth about our writing. In fact, we might even want to deny such a thing exists.

Instead, we should convince ourselves that our work is impeccable — first-rate — and that we know exactly what we’re talking about.  And we should ignore the inner critic. That’s the one who says “maybe smoking is hurting my health,” or “maybe my writing is no good and I should just give up.”

We’re addicted and our dependency is writing. We should close our eyes to anyone who tells us we’re not good enough and believe — with the certainty of Miloš Zeman — that help is completely unnecessary.

There’s every opportunity to be just like the Czech president when we’re writing.

Then, when we’re editing, it’s time to become just like the World Health Organization: Rigorous, detached, scientific and demanding.

Do you manage to write every day? We can all help each other so please share your thoughts with my readers and me, below. If you comment by August 31, 2014 I’ll put your name in a draw for a copy of the insightful book 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People by Susan M. Weinschenk. If you don’t see the comments box, click here and then scroll to the end.

Photo by Eric Watts.

22 Responses/Posted August 19th, 2014 in Power Writing