Monday, September 27, 2010

How the Brain Enters Orbit

My friend Susan had an interesting post about the trick of choosing what to write next. I've always found this interesting, and often think of it in terms of momentum; but, since Susan loves sci-fi, today I'm gonna talk about it in terms of gravity.

How do we choose what to write next?

Sometimes things choose us, or it is, at least, a shared responsibility. I'm one of those writers who always has a lot of story ideas, a lot of books (or short stories) I want to write. How to choose (or be chosen)?

The different stories, to me, are like planets. Each is its own world; some are full of life, teeming with living things, with interlocked ecosystems, while others are dead and inert - still others are just starting to bloom, deep chemical processes ripening beneath the surface and spawning a series of evolutional changes. And each of these planets has a gravity, a pull, a specific density working on the vast space around it.

My brain (my soul, my muse, my whatever) is like a comet whizzing by this clustered system of planetary bodies. Each one attracts me, swings me close, drawing me in. And yet I am hurtling fast indeed. Perhaps I fly close to a small one (short story) and spin once around it and then away. So little time is needed.

A novel, on the other hand, is something else entirely. It is not quick, or easy. You cannot whiz by a vast planet and take it all in, translate it for the world you left behind and to which you wish to return. To map such a planet you must enter orbit. You must circle again and again, each time sharpening your view, learning more, recording deeper impressions.

A novel idea requires a deep gravity if it is to reach fruition, an incredible pull. If it's not strong enough, this pull, my little comet will slip away into space befoe the story is ever completed.

And the interesting thing about these planets is that their gravity changes. So strange! One novel I'm revising (in theory) had an idea with a steep gravity at first, one that pulled me in, started my surveying passes from orbit, mapping out ideas and future trajectories. And yet there were problems, and the planet shrank, became porous and soft and thin, its gravity weakening until I was slung away, dragged off by the gravity of a monster red planet that seemed to suck up space all around it, drinking in vast seas of matter and growing and growing and growing.

I mapped that world (and am still mapping it), and yet on a service run back to the ol' home world (everyone needs a vacation now and again) I passed by that first planet once more. And in an instant the planet became dense and strong, its weight fastening me into orbit. I had inadvertently solved the problems that once hampered me, and now the planet had the requisite weight to keep hold of me for the duration.

The terrestrial surveys are almost complete.

And for you? What has the most weight? What's drawing you in right now to that wonderful orbit overlooking the genesis of a strange new world?

Monday, September 20, 2010

Things I Learned About Writing While Running 10km

1. Runner's cramps hurt more than writer's cramps, but don't usually last as long. And Gatorade is better for the former, though further testing may be required for a definitive answer.

2. Things are always chaotic at the beginning. So many things to trip over! The slalom can be effective, but it's like tacking an extra kilometre onto your book. All's good, though, if you can find a bit of space and hit your stride.

3. Pace is wonderful, but you can go too fast. People need a chance to breathe, and air is a wonderful thing. And don't set your pace by someone who's going half the distance.

4. Properly-fitted footwear is beneficial everywhere.

5. It's okay if someone else finishes before you, as long as you get to the finish line, too. Even if it's a couple pushing racing strollers. Okay, I have no idea what that means in terms of writing, but it was a little depressing when they passed me. (Though, really, they were awesome and made of some sort of newfangled metal alloy - their children were all shiny and made of melted-down gold medals)

6. Everyone has their own speed. Finding yours is the key.

7. Potholes are to be avoided. But, every now and again, the pothole is inevitable. Pain may be involved. But keep going. There are potholes along every route. Keep your eyes peeled. Tough it out.

8. Get it done. It doesn't have to look pretty. An ungainly gait is fine, as long as it gets you where you need to go.

9. Perseverence. Sometimes it's going to hurt. Sometimes it's going to hurt a lot. We all hit points where we say "Maybe this is enough. Maybe I'll just stop here. Enough is enough." But embrace the pain. The end is only going to be sweeter for having pushed through these doubts.

10. Trying to grab and drink those little cups of water from the water station while running and breathing heavily is much harder than it looks. Plus, also, messy. This also has nothing to do with writing. Um. Don't drink and write? Okay, don't drink and write. You heard it here first.

11. Run hard at the end. The crowd always likes a good closer.

12. Hot dogs make everything feel better. Trust me.

Monday, September 13, 2010


As I posted about last week, I'm doing the Terry Fox Run for cancer research this weekend (pledges always welcome!). And, as many of my Fellow Sophisticates know, I'm prone to using running metaphors here and there. Yup, there's a reason for this, as I think there's a connection between running and writing, at least for me.

I'm not the only, either. Haruki Murakami wrote a great book called What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, and it's about running, of course, but it's also about writing, and about how the two sometimes meet, and how they both infuse his creative life.

I think something of the same goes for me - there's a connection. How profound, I don't know. I wouldn't say the running is necessary for the writing, though I feel better when I run. And I do often think about stories when I'm running, so there is, in a sense, a direct linkage. The running is a piece of my creative process.

The real connection, though, is something to do with the state of mind. The old sports metaphor is "in the zone". It is, I think, when you seem to move beyond the conscious to an almost automatic response. It's like instinct. You seem to stop thinking and simply react, and everything comes easy. Everything flows.

It's a peaceful state, in some senses, and yet also an ecstatic one. There's a calmness, and yet the world comes more vividly to the eye, more clearly to the ear, more solidly to the hand. It seems like instinct, or the muse taking over. You feel almost like a funnel, and things just flow through you. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi even wrote a book about it: Flow.

I feel this when I write. Not always, but often enough when I get into serious writing, deep into a story I'm working on every day. I feel it when I run, too. Not always, but often enough when I'm out on the roads every day. The sudden ease, the sudden flow. It's a bit like you're flying, a sense of pervasive lightness, of freedom. The fingers fluttering so light and quick upon the keys, the feet flashing so smoothly upon the road it's as if you're gliding, barely skimming the surface.

Yet that feeling can be misleading. I'm not sure it's entirely the muse. I may not be channeling anything but myself. And it does not comes easily. My first run in the spring, after months off this year... there was no flow. There was not a flow for many days, perhaps a month or two. The legs had to put in the hours, the miles. The muscles build strength and memory. The stride is slowly encoded in the body. It becomes automatic, it flows, only with endless repetition. A thousand steps, a million steps.

It's not so different with writing. It comes only after a thousand words, a million words, a conglomeration of countless bits of learning, countless moments of practice. It is not instinct grasping at something before or beyond the rational, but rather a synthesis, the sudden cohesion of what you've learned, of what you know. You don't have to think about it in the conscious sense, as it's become a part of you. Your own mind provides you with a moment of grace.

The patter of keys. The patter of feet.


Friday, September 10, 2010

The World in Miniature: Have a Nice Day

by Mira

Have a Great Day

• Mira, you're in charge of the counselors, right?

Hi Jon. Yes, I am.

• Good, I want a different counselor.

You do?

• Yeah, Paul is okay, but I think he likes me.

Likes you?

• Yeah, likes me likes me. I lost weight from the cancer, so I work out every day.

That's great that you're working out.

• Now, I look hot. Do you think I look hot, Mira?


• But I don't go that way since that jerk left. Broke my heart, Mira.

Sorry, Jon.

• I like girls now, Mira.


• But you know it's not right.

What's not right?

• The FBI. They're using infrared to watch us all the time, and it's not right.

• They shouldn't be allowed to do that, Mira.

That's true.

• So, anyway, the new counselor, Rachel, could she be my counselor? Because she's cute.

Jon, you know we don't assign counselors to have relationships with clients.

• I know Mira, I'm just messing with you. But she is cute.

Okay, Jon.

• So, I guess I'll stay with Paul then. He's pretty nice.

I'm glad he's nice.

• Yeah, he's okay. He helped me get a place. I like it. Much better than the streets.

That's great!

• Yeah, it's great. But Mira, the FBI listens outside my room.


• I stuffed a towel under the door. Think that will help?

I hope so.

• Hold on a sec, I'll get my notebook. Did I show you my new drawings?

Those are good drawings, Jon.

• Thanks, Mira. This is a picture of that counselor Rachel. Doesn't she look beautiful?

She does look beautiful.

• I didn't make a picture of Paul. I hope that won't hurt his feelings.

I think you should draw what you want to draw, Jon.

• I drew a picture of you, Mira. See? You have a beautiful smile, Mira.

Thanks, Jon.

• You could be my counselor, Mira.

I'm sorry, I don't take clients, Jon. But you'd be a great client to work with.

• I would?

Yes, absolutely.

• Okay. I wish the FBI would stop hacking my computer though.


• My family used to be really rich, and now they track everything we do.

They do?

• Yes, we used to own Canada and they set up a secret society to take our money from us.

Sorry to hear that.

• It would make a great movie, though.

That would make a good movie.

• Okay. Well, I'll go see Paul now. Then I have to go. I've got two groups today.

That's great that you're going to groups.

• I haven't used crack in five months, Mira.

Five months? That's terrific, Jon. Good for you!

• Thanks, Mira. You're very nice.

You're nice, too, Jon.

• I'm not going to use crack today, Mira.

That's wonderful, Jon.

• Have a great day, Mira.

You, too, Jon. Have a great day.

Note: I work in a substance abuse agency. The preceding was a fictionalized compilation of client conversations.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A Run for Charity, A Run for Hope

In 1977 a young man was diagnosed with cancer. He was eighteen-years-old and an athlete, a basketball player and distance runner, and with the diagnosis of osteosarcoma (a cancer that often starts in the area of the knee) he learned that he would lose his leg.

His right leg was amputated, though within three weeks he was walking on a prosthetic leg. He was given a 50% chance of survival, poor odds that would have been poorer only a year or two before, when the chances were only 15%. These were the mathematics of survival, and the numbers struck him as important. Such advances in treatment could mark the line between life and death.

He endured sixteen months of chemotherapy at a cancer facility. Around him he saw other cancer sufferers. Around him he saw the ebb and flow of hope, the slow touch of despair and the suddenness of loss. Around him he saw friends suffer and die, falling to a disease that touched so many.

When he left his life was before him, a new life to face and live. He joined a wheelchair basketball team and quickly became an all-star, winning three national championships. And yet he wanted more. He remembered those months in a cancer facility, and wanted to find a way to bring courage to others. He remembered, too, his time as a distance runner.

He began to run. He had an odd gait, on his new prosthetic leg, a stride marked by a little skip on his good foot. step-skip step, step-skip step, step-skip step…
He embarked on a 14 month training program. He would run a marathon. And yet even as he trained for and eventually completed his first marathon (a run of 26 miles), he was devising something far grander.

He wanted to give others hope, to give them courage. And he was angry. He remembered friends dying at the cancer facility, and was angry at how little awareness there was of cancer, this disease that killed so many, and shaped the lives of so many more. There was so little money for the funding of research, and yet that research could mark the line between life and death: he had never forgotten the mathematics of survival. 15% to 50%. 15% to 50%. Perhaps with a little more funding the math could be different still: 15% to 50% to 100%. Here’s where the mathematics of survival merged with mathematics of hope.

His vision was large indeed. He would run across Canada. He would run the equivalent of a marathon every day. Every day. He would run from the Atlantic to the Pacific. What he envisioned was a Marathon of Hope, an opportunity to draw awareness to the needs of cancer patients and to the necessity of funding cancer research.

He began on April 12, 1980, dipping his right leg in the Atlantic Ocean near St. John’s, Newfoundland. In the early days he met with wind, rain and snow. Yet he ran.

A marathon every day. By the time he reached Montreal, a third of the way through, he had raised $200,000. Yet he was becoming famous. By the time he entered Ottawa on Canada Day, his story was beginning to reach across the country and around the world. Despite the physical toll of what he was doing, he would not turn down an interview, an event, a chance to speak: any chance, no matter how small, to raise awareness and funding was a chance he had to take. He could not forget the faces he left behind in the cancer facility, the faces on which hope was slowly fading.

And he ran.

The miles piled up. An immense road stretched behind him, and yet an equally long one stretched in front. Yet he ran. No matter the cost. He had shin splints, an inflamed knee, tendonitis in his ankle, cysts on his stump. Yet he ran.

And every day more money came in. In the end he raised over 12 million dollars for cancer research. And yet the end came prematurely. His body was breaking down. Each day he was exhausted even before he started his run. On September 1st, outside Thunder Bay, the 23-year-old had a series of intense coughing fits and felt pain in his chest. He stopped, tried to recover briefly, and continued on. Yet he could not find air, breath escaping him, and the pains in his chest grew.

Driven to a hospital, he learned that his cancer had returned, and spread to his lungs. At last, his run was over. Chemotherapy treatments failed to halt the advance of his cancer, and on June 28, 1981, he died.

His name was Terry Fox.

He had run his last step, but the Marathon of Hope continues. Every year, across the county and world, cities will hold a Terry Fox Run, a race of remembrance. The dream of hope lives on, and each year more is pledged to fight cancer. The Terry Fox foundation has raised more than half a billion dollars in his name for the cause.

Terry Fox was a hero. Not because he had one leg and did something extraordinary. This is too simple, too reductionist. It is not a story about his specialness, but about his gift of determination and hope. It is a story about how a person stepped (or ran) beyond themself. It is about human dignity, about how we can face our challenges, whatever they may be. It is about sacrifice. It is about how someone gave of themself for the greater good of others. Gave everything, even their life.

Whether it is the story of Christ accepting his death on the cross for the sins of others, or Frodo trudging up the slopes of Mount Doom, there is something about these stories that is touching. About determination in the face of death, and the humility to accept such consequences to provide for others.

Martyrs are rare, and yet sometimes their example can touch lives. Thousands of people will run in Terry Fox’s name on September 19, 2010, and I hope to be one of them. I have entered my local Terry Fox Run, and plan to race 10km on my sore little feet. What is that, after what he did? In the end Terry ran 3,339 miles (5,373 km)over 143 days. The immensity of this feat is scary. I can’t do this, can't do so much. I can only do a little. But sometimes much can be made of many little things.

My little thing is to run 10km and to seek pledges in support of cancer research. I know times are tough for many, and I understand if people can’t afford to offer support, or already offer support to other equally important charities. But, if you can give something, it would be appreciated – for those who suffer now, and for those who will suffer in the future, and for one who suffered everything, and gave everything, in the past.

You can donate via this link, or check out the Terry Fox Foundation on your own and support that way.

Link to My Terry Fox page

My sincerest thanks.