Wake up your settings

Most of us are aware of the oft-cited truth that the passive voice (‘The ball was hit by the boy.’) does not work as well, when you’re writing creatively, as the active voice (‘The boy hit the ball.’) You can immediately see that there’s more energy in the latter. But I’m often surprised by how typically people resort to other passive constructions to convey the world in which their story is set: “The chair was by the window,” or the ubiquitous “There was a chair by the window.” It’s as if the chair is sleeping there, just waiting for someone to come in and give it a shake.

At the final, copy-editing stage, when such considerations come into view, wake up your settings. Use active verbs, rather than citing passive states: “The chair stood by the window” or “waited by the window”. You’ll find your writing gets a sudden burst of life.

Intimacy, a poem


I can be alone,
I know how to be alone.
There is a tacit understanding
Between my pencils
And the trees outside:
Between the rain
And my luminous hair.
The tea is boiling:
My golden zone,
My pure burning amber.
I can be alone,
I know how to be alone. By tea-light
I write.
Nina Cassian

December 2020, Writers news

I’m afraid that in the current flurry of online workshops, I haven’t been tracking news of Freefall participants’ recent publications as I should, and I welcome all reminders.

But I do know that my friend and former student, Patricia Moffat, has published the memoir about adoption that was begun in a Freefall workshop more than twenty years ago, with Crowsnest Books, entitled She Turned Her Head Away. It is the thoughtful and well-written story of what can happen when an adopted child decides to look for – and finds – her birth mother. It’s an absorbing book that I hope will also serve as an inspiration to everyone who has a manuscript tucked away somewhere, along with a thousand reasons not to send it out.

In England, Charlie Morris, a former Financial Times sports editor, has published a football memoir, Generation Game, last year to good reviews, after attending a Freefall Writing Workshop at Poulstone Court in 2013.

And Australia’s Deborah Huff-Horwood reports “a small but joyful success”: having had her story, The Suitcase”, cited as Highly Commended among entries for the AAWP—Ubud Writers and Readers Emerging Writers’ Prize.

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield.  I haven’t seen the BBC movie (with Redgrave and Coleman), though I would love to. But the book that gave rise to it, a Gothic suspense novel to rival (more or less explicitly) Jane Eyre, strikes me as being, as much as anything, a celebration of reading. The main character, who lives in her father’s bookshop, has been chosen to write a biography of the most famous living novelist in England, Vida Winter.  To do so she must live in Winter’s (possibly haunted) house, comb through the burnt-out shell of the decaying mansion where Winter grew up, but above all sort her way through Winter’s various versions of her life story, itself the missing story from a book Winter has just published. Did I say that both she and Winter (separately) are twins, with lost doubles who haunt their footsteps and absorb their waking thoughts? “Which reality do you choose?” seems to be the question everyone’s lips.  And the answer: “Which one do you prefer?”

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

Unlike many people, I could never get into Bel Canto, which always felt a bit too elaborately fabricated for me. But I did enjoy this novel. It’s almost a family saga, centred around an improbably imposing house to which all of the members of its not-very-blended family feel entitled (unless, like the narrator’s now-absent mother, they reject it out of hand). In fact many things about the novel are improbable, but I liked the way the characters, including the narrator, would morph from admirable to obscurely untrustworthy, constantly giving the impression that there was more to what was being said than met the eye. I liked spending time with these clever, complicated people and above all, I liked the fact that I looked forward to getting back to the novel when I put it down – an experience that seems to become rarer as time goes by. (Apparently the book is also rife with literary allusions, but except for a moment when I started thinking about Housekeeping, I’d have to say they largely passed me by.)

The Overstory by Richard Powers

The Overstory by Richard Powers is a towering book. Slow to come together, it eventually becomes impossible to put down, as trees get their say in about seven different languages. The characters are unique and memorable. And it’s hard to imagine how anyone could know as much as Powers knows about trees, just for starters. Clearly, he picks things up like a magpie. (A main plot line is borrowed directly from the 2010 documentary, If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, for instance.) But he also knows a staggering amount about computer programming, psychology, science, art… The miracle for me comes toward the end, when it seems to me we truly begin to see life from the trees’ perspective. Yes, human beings will come to an end. Trees? Those too.  But life will go on re-inventing itself, whatever happens. And strangely enough, it seems there is solace to be found in that.

The best time to write

Especially these days, when time can flow by unmarked in a way we have never experienced before, I worry when people say, “I can only write at such-and-such a time”. Yes, it’s always good to have a routine to give yourself a boost. But you can’t write at any other time? Really?

My worry is that any hard-and-fast rule we can come up with about writing is manna to the Inner Critic. Of course you can write any time of the day or night. The writing may look different then, but is that such a bad thing?

Experiment. Stay curious. And remember (to borrow from Ed Lawrence, CBC Radio’s gardening guru, who says “The best time to prune is when you have the secateurs in your hand”): the best time to write is when you have some time.  End of story.

Put some words down daily

As the decade draws to a close, look back and appreciate how much closer you’ve come to the realization of your writing hopes. During this decade, the world has become vastly busier (The number of emails sent, for example, has more than tripled. Working people now receive an average or 120 emails a day). So not only have you made progress: you’ve made progress against increasingly stiff competition from daily life.

Writing requires that you reach into the depths of yourself — that’s what makes it so profoundly satisfying. But to do that, you need time, and relief from the tasks of life. Take some time, right now, to consider what it is you want for your writing in the new decade. Then set aside some time each morning, coffee in hand, to dig a little deeper “before others are awake” (as William Stafford puts it). Put some words down daily, and all the rest will follow. Believe me; I know.