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

The surprising results of tiny good deeds…

tiny good deedReading time: Less than 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 headlined, “A Tiny Good Deed Can Go a Long Way”….

The article I want to discuss today — A Tiny Good Deed Can Go a Long Way — appears to have nothing to do with writing. In fact, I think the principle it outlines, has everything to do with it. Here’s why.

Social scientists have learned that the more specific we are about what we want to accomplish, the more successful we’re likely to be. Thus, tell yourself you want to be happy and you may simply be stymied by the vague, amorphous nature of the goal. But tell yourself you want to make one person smile today and, voila. You will be happier.

As my own social experiment, I tried this on Friday. I had to have a blood test and I resolved to make the lab technician smile. It worked! I did feel happier. Of course, I recognize that my small sample size (one) proves absolutely nothing. Still, the logic of the principle is eminently sensible. Most of us like to accomplish things and we’re better at patting ourselves on the back when the goal is small, realistic and achievable.

Exactly the same principle applies to writing. Don’t resolve to write a book. Instead resolve to write for 10 minutes a day. If you can produce 250 words in that time and do it every weekday for a year, you’ll have a book of 65,000 words.

Isn’t that amazing? Read A Tiny Good Deed Can Go a Long Way and see how it might change your writing life.

One Response/Posted August 18th, 2014 in Writing about writing

How to help writers succeed


Reading time: Less than 2 minutes

Does your company ever need to hire writer? Here are some tips on how to help writers succeed…

I recently accepted a contract with a small communications firm. They wanted me to write some stories that perfectly fit the style I best like to produce: 500 words, one to two interviews per story, quick turnaround.

Yes! I could do all those things! I accepted the contract gladly and it mostly went very well. With this recent experience in mind, here are some tips for how you can get the best possible results from your writers:

  • Give detailed assignments: This means explaining the questions you want the story to answer and providing reasonable sources (with email addresses and telephone numbers) who can be interviewed. Send each assignment as a separate email (or Word document), not all bunched together on one document.  If there are any additional requirements — such as finding photos or selecting pull quotes — be sure to mention them here. Don’t add more work later. (Thankfully, my client did the detailed assigning part really well.)
  • Pre-interview the sources: I know. This sounds like work. And it is. But if you’re expecting the writer to produce a story along a certain lines, hadn’t you better make sure the source is the right person to be interviewed? In this recent case, I had to completely re-do a story because one of the sources wasn’t right. This created extra work for me and forced me to juggle my schedule for my other clients.
  • Make sure your sources are actually going to be available: For another one of my stories, one of the subjects was tied up in meetings for an entire week, which effectively put the story “on hold.” Always check with your sources first, before you assign them to the writer, making sure they’re actually going to be available.
  • Iron out the approval process: I’m really good with the approval process, although that’s not what I call it. I call it FACT CHECKING, which puts the emphasis where it belongs — on accuracy, rather than style. Anyway, I never mind doing fact checking. I view it not as a burden, but as a chance to check the accuracy of my understanding of a topic.

Assigning writers  — especially if you’re not a writer yourself — will save you time and get you a better result. But it won’t mean you’re entirely free of work. How well you assign, and the care and attention you put into it, will have an inevitable result on the finished piece of writing.

No Responses/Posted August 15th, 2014 in Gray-Grant Communications

Exploring the metaphors of Tom Rachman

Tom RachmanReading time: Less than 2 minutes

I like to share interesting pieces of figurative language I encounter in my reading. I write today about the metaphorical efforts of Tom Rachman.

The book The Imperfectionists earned a spot on my top 10 list of novels for 2010. It stunned me that a first-time novelist could pull off such a coup. Thus, I eagerly awaited his next effort. Was the first book merely a fluke, or was Tom Rachman a reliable writer?

The jury is in. The man can write. His latest novel, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers carries a terrible title (I find it impossible to remember and have to keep looking it up) but the book itself is interesting, engaging and peopled with terrific characters.

It’s also stuffed with beguiling metaphors. Here are just a few from his story about Tooly Zylberberg, a young woman who grows up around the world with a ragtag group of Americans.

In her two-star midtown hotel, she awoke in the dark — that under-the-soil blackness of a hotel room with the curtains drawn.

Cupping basin water to her mouth, she roused herself, parted the curtains, and discover and Orion’s belt of office lights.

Silence sat between them as if upon its haunches on the table.

Her warmth was evident as were the physical changes since their last encounter, her features assuming an increasingly manly configuration as she neared her mid-fifites, despite evident attempts to cling to earlier decades, with dyed strawberry-blond hair down to her waist, a Mickey Mouse halter top, and pendulous earring that stretched her lobes, like two hands waiting to drop their luggage.

Eventually, hours vanished there. Like a black hole, the Internet generated its own gravity neither light nor time escaping.

In the hotel lobby, a brass revolving door swallowed Tooly, spat her into the metropolis, her entrance punctuated by doormen whistling for cabs and the bap-bap-bap of horns. 

“How was school?” he asked. School was a country and home was a country, and the two sent each other letters but never met, Tooly the emissary shuttling between.

These travels had decimated her savings. She’d be eating empty sandwiches for a while now.

My favourite? The line about school and home being separate countries. Such an apt image!

No Responses/Posted August 14th, 2014 in Figurative language

What’s a penumbra?

penumbraReading time: About 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: penumbra.

By the time I hit grade 11, I’d mostly opted out of maths and sciences and, instead, focused on literature and social studies. Still, I knew what a penumbra was.

It’s a partial shadow – the area between complete darkness and complete light in an eclipse (as shown in the photo, above.)

I recently re-encountered the word in the amusing book, Tourist Season, by Carl Hiaasen, the story of a private eye working to solve an unusual crime in South Florida crime. (The head of the city’s chamber of commerce is found dead with a toy rubber alligator lodged in his throat.) By the way, I believe the story isn’t quite as engaging as Hiaasen’s earlier, young adult book Hoot, which I think is better written.

Here is the sentence in which I found the word:

Keyes watched them huddle in the penumbra of a streetlight: a chubby, pleasant-faced woman who belonged at a church bake sale, and on each side, a tall husky Midwesterner in a purple fez.

I’ve always enjoyed the sound of the word penumbra. To my ear, it is both melodic and rich with hum of the “m” nicely balanced by the sharpness of the sudden “br” blend. According to my etymological dictionary, the word was  coined 1604 by German mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler. It comes from the Latin pæne, meaning “almost” and the Latin umbra, meaning “shadow”

2 Responses/Posted August 13th, 2014 in Word of the week

Biking (and writing) like it’s no big deal

biking and writingReading time: Less than 3 minutes

My husband and I just returned from a three-week trip to Europe. Here is part 1 of a three-part series on each of the cities we visited. Today I focus on Amsterdam with a piece on biking and writing.

I didn’t own a bike when I was a kid. My parents couldn’t afford to get me one and, as a result, I didn’t learn to ride until I was 20 in an embarrassing lesson involving the streets of Kitsilano,  a too-large bike and a friend who is 6 feet tall. Thank you, Philip. My knees and my dignity have since recovered.

I live in a city — Vancouver, Canada — distinguished among other things for its bicycle-enamoured mayor who cycles to work and who has been stuffing our downtown with bicycle-only lanes or closing streets to everything except bicycles and feet. Not that I’m complaining. 

Still nothing could have prepared me for Amsterdam. This is a city mad for the bicycle. I gasped when our train pulled up beside the bicycle parking lot next to our station. Never before have I seen such a large collection of bicycles piled higgledy-piggledy in an enormous pile that looked a tad like the scene of an industrial accident. There were so many bikes it was as if they had been procreating or self-cloning. Even rabbits aren’t that productive.

440-umbrellaIn fact, there are far more bicycles than cars in this city. Roughly 600,000 (compared to 200,000 cars) for a city of 1.1 million. But it makes total sense. First, the land is mostly flat, so riders don’t need to climb hills. Second, the narrow, windy streets make biking faster than driving — as any tourist who’s been foolish enough to take a cab will tell you. (We didn’t. We walked.) Third, cyclists clearly have the right of way. We soon developed the habit of looking left-right-left before daring to cross any path. You could be mowed down in a heartbeat. 

Here are some of the things I saw (regularly) on bicycles:

  • Up to three people riding on one machine. Sometimes children were carried in a plastic or wooden box, attached. At other times passengers might be both in front of and behind the driver. I often saw adult passengers; once I even saw one riding sidesaddle.
  • Many of the bikes had no gears. At most, they were three-speeds. I saw not a single fancy or expensive bike. These were workhorses: large, strong and upright, although occasionally their owners had decorated them with flowers or painted them bright colours.
  • No helmets. Not one. No spandex either. Instead, I saw people in shorts and t-shirts, men in suits or women in short, dark skirts (I still don’t know how they did that) or loose, flowing ones. Once, I even saw a KLM flight attendant cycling to work in her bright blue tightly fitted uniform.
  • I saw many young people talking on the phone or even texting while cycling. I saw people riding with their arms behind their backs (look Ma, no hands!) and I saw them doing it while carrying umbrellas. Memorably, I even saw a young man cycling while carrying with one hand a painting that I estimated to be about 3 x 4 feet. I’m a bit of a safety elephant, but none of this struck me as particularly dangerous in Amsterdam. This is because….
  • While a few people rode aggressively, most adopted a dignified almost regal style of riding, sitting tall and poised while the landscape sailed by. In short, bike riding was not exercise and it wasn’t special. It was just a way of getting from point A to point B, cheaply and efficiently.

biking and writingAnd this brings me to the writing connection. If you grow up in a world where something is unusual — done only by the very fit or for an extraordinary event — and when it requires special equipment — such as a fancy bike, or spandex or even a helmet — then you’re probably going to have to be a bit of a zealot to do it.

But if you can make an activity — whether it’s biking or writing — more of an everyday kind of thing, you’re going to feel more confident and self-assured about it.

Don’t make writing something exceptional that you do only occasionally. Instead, do it every day, casually, without trying to prove anything.

Just like they ride bikes in Amsterdam.

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.

(Photos by Eric Watts.)

28 Responses/Posted August 12th, 2014 in Power Writing

Happy summer!


I am off work and in Europe until Tuesday, August 12, 2014.

I will not be maintaining my daily blog during this time, but have written my Tuesday posts — which are also distributed by email — in advance. The photograph above shows Vienna, which will be our third destination.

I hope you’re able to enjoy some summer holidays, too, and that you return relaxed and refreshed — and eager to write some more.

No Responses/Posted August 6th, 2014 in Holidays