Monday, November 13, 2017

Why I Enjoy Writing Fiction

Image used courtesy of National Novel Writing Month
November is National Novel Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo. This year, hundreds of thousands of people from around the world are toiling at their computers trying to write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November. That works out to writing an average of 1,667 words a day every day for thirty days.

I am one of them. Last year I participated in NaNoWriMo as well. I started a new novel, a post-apocalyptic tale about a group of women who have survived in an underground shelter for eighteen years after the global collapse of society. I continued working on it throughout last December and January. Then I set it aside, and did some other things, like renovations, selling a house, buying a house, retiring, and moving. This November, I decided to pick up on writing the novel from where I left off, 50,000 words and 13 chapters into it.

I have been spending hours on it every day. (That is why I have been neglecting my blog.) I am a slow writer. I do not write the way the NaNo website suggests — just flinging words onto the page without worrying about sentence structure, cohesion, or flow. I write carefully, rereading and editing as I go. I build the story brick by brick. That way, when it comes time to go back and revise the first draft, I will have something solid to work with, rather than a mess that seems overwhelming.

I am really enjoying writing this novel. I spend my days in a fog, preoccupied by thinking about my characters and their trials and tribulations. Then when I sit down at the computer, the story just spools out of me.

Why do I love writing fiction so much? It is a good question in this era of the self-narrative, when autobiographical writing, or memoir, or autoethnography is so popular. After all, in memoir, the plot has already happened; you don’t have to make anything up. You have a ready-made story. “This is what happened to me.”

Well, autobiographical writing has a couple of big challenges. Although autobiographical writing, such as memoir, is about the self, every person is embedded in a social context. Therefore, when you write about yourself, you are also writing about people close to you. It is easy to offend, or to disrespect others' privacy. That can be hard, especially when you are in an ongoing relationship with those others that you would like to maintain, or when the things you are saying are negative.

If you write innocuous things about other people, perhaps this issue of privacy is less of a problem, but bland accounts of past experiences do not tend to make very interesting reading. People like to read about conflicts, where there is a villain and a hero, and challenges are faced and overcome. There can be a real temptation to spice up the truth a bit, to add a bit of drama. But in memoir, as Mary Karr says, writing the truth is the fundamental rule that you must not break.

So this is one of the reasons that I love to write fiction. I can make my fictional characters as nasty or as foolish as can be, without the risk of alienating someone in my real life. In fiction, I don’t have to leave out the embarrassing bits to spare someone’s feelings. Really, those juicy details are what make the story.

Another thing about fiction is that you can make the plot do whatever you want. You are not constrained by the history of events as they actually happened, and therein is the true joy of fiction. You get to use your imagination to invent whatever strange world your creative self can envision. You can work out the complexities of your protagonist’s personality, and toss one crazy challenge after another at them, just to see how they behave.

When you write fiction, you pose the question “What if?” What if a group of women lived in a shelter in tunnels and basement rooms under the ruins of a shattered university while lawless gangs roamed through the destroyed city scavenging for material goods? How would this character behave if she was spurned by her lover? What ethical choices would that character face when torn between following the rules of the collective or helping an outsider?

Ultimately, that is the great value of fiction. You can put yourself into someone's circumstances and try to understand how they might think, feel, and act in that situation. Through fiction, you can acquire a deeper empathy for someone unlike yourself. Through fiction, you might just get a little closer to uncovering a truth of human experience. And, most of all, writing fiction is fun!

Where I Write

By the way, if you are a NaNoWriMo participant and you would like to find me, I write under the pen name AnnaHarvey, and my current novel is called The Age of Grandchildren.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Family, Small Towns, and Fall Fairs

I grew up in a small Canadian town. As a child, I loved that little town and fully intended to live there forever. But my story turned out differently.

I had aspirations to go to university. Looking around, as an adolescent, it was clear to see that there were not many career opportunities in my small town, especially for women. Going to university meant leaving my town to move to a big city far away.

After leaving to go to university, I came back to my home town for a few summers, but I never lived there full-time again. I became qualified in a profession that did not require living in a large city to obtain employment, but by that time, there also was my my husband's career to consider. Finding satisfying work for both of us ultimately meant choosing to live in larger centers.

Later, I made a career switch and was fortunate to find a great position in my new field. I relocated to a mid-sized city within driving distance of my home town. A decade later, I moved even closer, and lived in a small city only 200 kilometers away.

During all these years, several of my family members have continued to live in the little town. So I have returned again and again to visit, celebrate Christmas, go skiing, go hiking, and attend the Fall Fair.

The Fall Fair is an annual highlight that takes place in the late summer. Although I have attended similar fairs in other places, there is no Fall Fair quite like the one in my town. Recently, I attended the Fall Fair again.

Fall Fair Parade
The Fall Fair starts with a parade. The weather always seems to be terrible during Fall Fair week. This year we went early to get good seats on the curb to watch the parade, and found ourselves shivering in a cold wind. Someone made a run back to the house to get blankets and warm sweaters, and even so, we were thoroughly chilled off before the last tractor and dancing cow had meandered up the main street of town.

The next day, my young nieces were exhibiting some of their animals in the 4-H events. The whole family got involved in leading the sheep to their stalls in the sheep barn.

Preparing for the 4-H Sheep Event
There were two large buildings hosting the agricultural and handicraft exhibits. My mom and I strolled up and down the long tables examining the tomatoes and zucchinis; the homemade bread, biscuits, pies, and brownies; the homemade wines and jams; and the flower arrangements. When my dad was still alive, he always entered his homemade wines and usually came away with several ribbons. This is one of the first years that my mom, now in her eighties, has not entered her homemade jams and jellies.

We also spent a long time admiring the art categories. One of my brothers and my sister in law won ribbons for their photography, and my brother and both nieces won several ribbons for their art. I recalled entering my own paintings and drawings in the Fall Fair when I was a child. I also used to enter flowers from my own little garden during my teen years.

We ate perogies and sauerkraut, and corn on the cob and fries. We spent time hanging out at the barns enjoying a brief period of sunshine. Rob said that sitting around in the hay barn was his favourite part of the fair!

Robby Hayseed

Uncle Hayseed
Later on, there was a rodeo, and we cheered for my sister in law's younger brother as he rode the bucking bronc. And of course, the kids were thrilled about going on the circus rides and eating cotton candy.

I am grateful that I have family who still live there. I can go back year after year, and feel as if I still have a foot in my hometown. There is a wonderful sense of continuity of the generations that I sometimes miss, having chosen instead to lead a more transient life.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

One Small Action


Spawning Sockeye*

Underwater Photography

As we get to know our new community, we have gradually begun to participate in activities and events here. Recently I attended a talk by a noted local underwater and landscape photographer, Eiko Jones. I was not familiar with Jones' work and had no idea what to expect.

As it turned out, I was completely blown away by his fabulous photos. Eiko Jones takes many of his underwater photos in local rivers and swamps on Vancouver Island, as well as in the ocean. His story of how he obtains his amazing underwater or split screen shots is almost as fascinating as the photos themselves. Essentially, he dives down and lies on the bottom of the riverbed, sometimes for more than two hours, taking hundreds of shots to get those one or two perfect images.

British Columbia (BC) and Alaska have one of the world's last great salmon habitats. Many of Eiko's photos showed the five species of returning and spawning salmon, and young salmon fry. Lately, in order to not disturb salmon in spawning beds with the bubbles from his scuba gear, he has taken to free diving.

I have lived in the watersheds of two of BC's major salmon bearing rivers most of my life, and am well aware of the importance of salmon to the ecology as well as to people, especially the First Nations peoples whose livelihoods depend on salmon. Eiko's photos of salmon who had fought their way back to their native stream to spawn and then die, along with his accounts of successful salmon stream rehabilitation, almost brought me to tears. Please click on the links to see examples of his photography.

Elder College Public Lecture

I have just discovered that there is an active Elder College program in my area. They are hosting a series of three public lectures in a nearby community centre. The topic for the speaker series is: Achieving Global Sustainability: A Decent Life For All. Unfortunately I missed the first talk, but I went to the second one in the series, which focused on global climate change and sustainable development.

I am deeply concerned about climate change. An obligation that rests heavily on my shoulders, now that I have retired, is to find ways to contribute meaningfully to society, and, in some small way, to help work toward solutions to the overwhelming and urgent problems that face humanity on a global scale. Climate change is one of many huge, interrelated problems, along with poverty, overpopulation, food insecurity, violence, gender inequity, and so on. It can seem overwhelming and hopeless. How does one even know where to start? How can one person's actions make any difference in the face of such urgent and difficult problems?

But thinking about it that way is defeatist. Trying to put pressing world issues out of mind and doing nothing does not alleviate my worrying about them because I still know the problems are there, like a monster in the closet. Having been present in Eiko Jones' talk, it was fresh in my mind how one person, through his exceptional photography, was gently educating people about ways to rejuvenate salmon streams, and why it is important.

As I listened to the sustainability speaker, I realized a couple of things. One is that almost nothing that he said about the causes and solutions to climate change and global sustainability was new information for me. Over the years, I have been reading and educating myself about these issues.

Another thing I realized is that many people from all countries of the world have been working for years to establish and implement global sustainability goals. In 2015, countries around the world adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This global agenda identifies 17 sustainability goals, readily available on the United Nations website. Also in 2015, signatories to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change agreed to take action to limit temperature change to a maximum of 2 degrees Celsius.

So, in contributing my part, I am not alone. I am joining people around the world working toward a shared vision. One plus one plus one is how we get there.

A third thing that I realized is that I have been making choices for decades now to live in ways that are more environmentally conscious. In many little ways, I already have been doing things that align with the UN's 17 sustainability goals. Of course, there are many more changes that I could make. Just as people can join in one by one to work toward a shared goal, an individual can make personal changes one by one, and it all adds up. Here is a list of easy things to do: The Lazy Person's Guide to Saving the World. It is a great starting point.



One Small Act: #globalgoals

Upon coming home from the sustainability talk, I went online and read the UN's 17 sustainability goals. In doing so, I almost plunged into helplessness and hopelessness again. The problems are so big. The goals are so idealistic. 2030 is only 13 short years away!

But then, I decided that although I couldn't solve the problems of the world today, I could do one small thing today.

Goal 2 is to end hunger and increase food security, globally. This is one area in which we have made significant strides over the last 30 years. Although the world population has continued to rise, the absolute number of people in extreme poverty without access to adequate food has decreased. However, poor nutrition remains the biggest single cause of child mortality for children under five. For decades, we have known that the best way to improve the nutrition and health of babies and young children is for mothers to breastfeed. Yet Nestle corporation continues to market baby formula and powdered milk to the poorest countries of the world, making false claims that it is a more healthy choice.

So today, I joined the boycott of Nestle products. This link is to the most up-to-date list I could find for Canada. It includes links to the boycott lists for the USA, UK, and Australia. I printed the list and put it on my fridge. Then I sent it to three other people. That was my one small act for today.

*This is a free public domain photo by an unknown photographer. Follow the links to see Eiko Jones' photographs.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

What Really Matters

There was a time, not so long ago, that I thought I was doing pretty important stuff. Every day, Monday to Friday, I went to my office at 8:30 am and worked very hard. I went to meetings, figured out budgets, prepared agendas, mentored staff, and developed programs. Emails about important issues dropped into my email box all day long, some requiring immediate decisions and action, and others were from colleagues outlining their concerns about initiatives, or sending project updates, or communicating about personnel situations.

I worked so hard that I didn’t have time for lunch. I ate at my desk while reading through an eighty-five page agenda with attachments for the 1:00 pm meeting. I worked so hard that when most of the staff left for the day at 4:30, I would sigh with relief that the texts and phone calls had stopped coming in, and finally sit down to respond to the day’s worth of e-mails, or read a draft proposal, or write a report, or put together an agenda for a meeting of one of the many committees I chaired.

I worked so hard that I didn’t have time for supper. I would eat a snack at my desk and keep on working, finally heading home around 7:30 or 8:00 pm. On my nights to cook, we didn’t sit down to dinner until 8:30 or 9:00. As I hadn’t had time to exercise during the day, aside from rushing between buildings for meetings, I tried to go for a walk each night after dinner. But often I was just too tired. I missed my friends and family, all living so far away, so sometimes in the evening I would phone them, or they would phone me.

It was such important work. I had to give all my time to it. But, even working so hard, and even with a wonderful team who worked just as hard as me, I could never keep up with everything.

The weekends were for catching up on life. There were chores to do, exercise (because I hadn’t had time during the week), excursions with Rob, and gardening. And of course, sometimes there were work events on the weekends too. Even when I wasn’t at work, thoughts and emotions about work issues tended to predominate.

The work was so important.

Except it wasn’t. Now that I have retired, I look back at the life I was living, and I realize that it was crazy. As I wrote the description above, I just kept thinking, “Really???? Did I really believe that working such long hours was my only option, or that it was a good choice?” The new me wishes I could go back in time and shake some sense into the old me.

Stepping out of the workplace into my new retired life has been an experience of major perspectival shift. Not only do my old points of view seem foreign to me and somewhat bizarre, but I am seeing the other nonwork pieces of my life in a new way. No longer bits in the margins of my all-consuming worklife, it turns out that those parts of life are, in fact, what really matters.

I knew that I loved being a grandma. Visiting from afar every three months supplemented by occasional FaceTime was not enough. I could not do spontaneous things with the kids, like I can now that I have retired and moved closer to family members. For example Rob and I recently visited a Naval Base open house with my daughter’s family, as pictured below. My two little grandsons were very impressed with the helicopter, navy ships, and zodiacs at the base.

Captain of the Navy Vessel

Being physically closer to my grandkids, I can sometimes do grandma duty, giving their parents a chance to get away to do something together. Even though our move did not bring us physically closer to our other set of grandkids, we now have more time to travel to their community for visits, or to welcome visitors to our place.

One of the big surprises is how much I love being closer to my adult kids. Now it is possible to go to weekly yoga classes with one daughter, schedule a weekend in Vancouver to attend another daughter’s art show, and go for a hike on the local trails with my son. Yes, we did get together in the past too, but it always involved an airplane flight, and I was always in a state of exhaustion from work. It put a damper on spontaneity.

Fun with Auntie

I have realized that, just as when they were younger, having time to spend with my kids is one of the things that really matters. It doesn’t always have to be a special event. It can be having a cup of tea together, playing together with the grandkids, or walking on the beach. Of course, now that my adult kids are in the stage of life where they are very busy with little time off, my greater time flexibility as a retiree is helpful for making those moments possible.

Digging into Chocolate Cheesecake

My family and friends are at the top of the list of what really matters. This realization does not negate the value of my work contributions over the past decades. In the future I will continue to pursue intellectual, creative, and physical/health interests and activities. In the present moment, I am grateful that I have transitioned to this new and satisfying stage of life.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Why the Angst About Retirement, Dr Sock?


Hiking in the Landscape We Left Behind

Back at the end of May, one of my blogger pals, Donna Connelly, wrote to me and invited me to write a guest post on her blog, Retirement Reflections. It would be part of her Summer Series on Favourite Retirement/Lifestyle Bloggers that she planned to host.

I was thrilled to be invited! Donna's blog is excellent, and I read every one of her posts. The quality of her blog is noticed by others too. Retirement Reflections recently was listed as one of the Top International Retirement Blogs in 2017

Another really cool thing is that I have actually met Donna in person. Last winter, we spent a month on Vancouver Island checking it out as a possible place to retire (and as you now know, we did end up buying a house and moving to the Island). It was fun to meet face to face after first getting to know each other via our blogs. However, I unintentionally created an awkward moment for Donna, due to the fact that I blog under an alias and until recently have not posted any pictures of myself. Donna arrived at our meeting place a few minutes before me, and told the server that she was meeting a friend. The server asked her what her friend looked like, and Donna had to respond: "I don't know!"

Well, I am a person who is motivated by deadlines. So I sent Donna my guest post at the end of June, one day before her requested deadline. (What does it say about me that I was actually proud of myself for sending it one day BEFORE the deadline?)

Donna had suggested that I write about the experience of retiring, as I was just about to retire on June 30. So I did, pouring out my state of mind at the time. I titled it: Over the Threshold into Retirement.

I was filled with angst about retirement as the official date approached. I was focused on what I was leaving behind, and how hard it was to let it go. I decided to use this guest post to reveal some things about my work and identity that I had not blogged about before. Are you a little bit curious? Here is what I had to say:


After months – no, years -- of planning, I finally have walked through the door to retirement. I have received my last paycheque. In a couple of weeks, I will pack up my office at work.  I have bought a house in a different province, in a community closer to our kids and grandkids. And I have booked a moving date.  

Rethinking my Identity 

It has been an emotional roller-coaster. Regular readers will know that I have struggled mightily with the challenge of stepping away from my work identity. What you might not know, as I have not shared it until now, is why I have found it so hard to leave work.     Continue Reading...
 
An Island Hike
Now as I look back on my state of mind leading up to the decision to retire and the experience of crossing the threshold from work to retirement a few months ago, I kind of chuckle about the angst I felt.  As it turns out, I love being retired! It is an experience of more, not less.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

A Day in the Life of a Retiree

So, we have arrived back "home" from our road trip to visit friends and family.

I know I had promised a post on the last half of the trip, but that will have to wait for a bit. I found it difficult to post while travelling because we had no wifi on the road, and whenever we arrived somewhere that had wifi, well, of course we were busy visiting and I had no time to look at my devices. In addition, Blogger does not seem to work well with Apple mobile devices; it could not seem to "see" photos on my new iPhone. So writing a post, and especially adding photos, required frustrating work-arounds. Does anyone else have this problem using Blogger with an iPhone or iPad? I would love some technical hints about what works for you.

But that is not my topic for this post.

I put quotation marks around the word home because, after having spent only 12 days here moving in, our new house didn't really feel like home when we returned to it a few days ago. It looked beautiful, and my son who was house-sitting had left it as neat as a pin. There were our furniture, dishes, clothes, and lots of boxes. The pets were delighted to see us. But we still felt as though we were unlocking the door to someone else's place. I guess it is time to settle in and actually start living here.

During the last few days, along with necessary chores, we have begun to explore the neighbourhood where we live. We have met some of the nearby neighbours, who seem very welcoming and friendly. We have gone to the local coffee house for coffee and snacks. We attended the Farmer's Market. We stopped in at a nearby farm that sells organic and locally produced meats and produce. My daughter's family came for dinner one evening.

Yesterday, we went for a short hike. There is trail access only a block from our house. Five to ten minutes of a steep rocky climb brought us to a viewpoint that overlooks a nearby lake and the ocean beyond.

View From the Lookout

Pausing for a Breather

The trail passed through a grassy open area where there were a number of Garry Oaks. Garry Oaks are the only oak tree native to western Canada, and their ecosystem is endangered. I was thrilled to discover that we have a couple of Garry Oaks on our property.

Standing among the Garry Oaks

There were also many Arbutus trees. These trees are the only broad leaf evergreen native to Canada, and they thrive on Vancouver Island. They are beautiful trees.

Standing by an Arbutus Tree

Arbutus Trees

The summit of our climb was the top of a high rocky bluff with magnificent views of the bay and mountains to the south. In this area as well, we found Garry Oaks and many Arbutus trees.

Hiking Across the Top

There has been almost no rain here all summer, and conditions are very dry. We later found out that the trails we were walking on have been temporarily closed to hikers because of the fire danger. We didn't realize it because the access trail we used had nothing posted about a closure. I guess we won't be hiking there again until we get some rain. Fortunately, rain is in the forecast for later this week.

I think I am starting to get into this retirement groove. Although really, it feels more like a lovely holiday in someone else's house in a beautiful oceanside location.

Here is what I did today:
  • I woke up at a reasonable (late) time, and sipped coffee while doing my online French lesson
  • I cooked a big breakfast, which included fresh blackberries we had picked ourselves
  • After breakfast, I read articles on the Internet about how to look after a goldfish pond. Yes, we have a goldfish pond!
  • Rob and I went for our first bike ride here. It is hilly. I am out of shape.
  • I had a shower and got changed, then walked down the street to a yoga studio in someone's home. My first yoga class here!
  • I walked home in the blazing sun and had a short nap.
  • We cleaned algae out of the fishpond, or rather, Rob did while I looked on.
  • We had a light lunch
  • I caught up on reading some blog posts
  • I did some laundry
  • I watered the garden
  • I unpacked my computer and set it up
  • I cooked a nice dinner -- lamb meatballs (with meat from the organic farm), rice, broccoli, and marinated bean and tomato salad
  • I did some more laundry
  • I wrote this blog post.
Our Bike Ride this Morning

The day that I described above is so very different from my typical day during the last 40 years. Right now, I find it blissful, and am so happy to have retired and made this move.

I am sure that soon enough, a little voice in my head will start to demand that I "accomplish something" each day. But for now, I am going to enjoy every lovely unstructured day, and learn how to just be. Of course, I'll spend some time unpacking boxes too. Tomorrow.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

A Retirement Bonus

When I decided to retire, one of the big motivating factors was that I wanted to get my life back. Working sixty plus hours a week left little time for creative pursuits and other other interests. As an administrator, I spent 11-12 hours a day sitting in meetings or hunched over a computer, and did not have enough time for regular exercise, healthy meals, and enough sleep. I especially missed having time to spend with family and friends, a problem that was exacerbated by living far away from the people that we loved.

Since stepping down from my administrator position a year ago, and officially retiring in June, I have loved being able to travel to BC to visit friends and family. Now that we have moved, we are closer to many family members and friends and will have the time to travel to visit those who are not as close by.

Just a week and a half after moving into our new house, we set off on a camper trip to central and northern BC. We attended the beautiful wedding of the daughter of our dear friends. I have known the bride since she was a newborn baby, and fortunately had the forethought to bring kleenexes with me to the ceremony!

The Happy Couple

Rob Shares a Moment With the Father of the Bride

Travel to the wedding was not without incident. This summer, BC has been ravaged by wildfires. When we left Vancouver Island, it was shrouded in smoke from fires in the interior of the province. Many communities had been evacuated as the fires encroached on their borders. The highway that normally we would have taken was closed because of wildfire danger. So we took a much longer route, and everywhere that we travelled, the air was full of thick smoke obscuring the sky and the landscape.

The worst of the smoke occurred in Prince George on the night of August 12th. We were at an event and even with all the doors and windows of the building closed, we could smell the choking smoke. When we came out of the building at midnight, apocalyptic ash was raining down from the sky like snow, and all of the vehicles in the parking lot were covered with a layer of black grit. Under the streetlights, the sky was a brown fog, swirling with falling ash. We later found out the the measures of particulate in the air had been off the chart, sixty times the recommended daily average.

On this trip, we visited with our other set of grandchildren. In fact, we were grandparents in charge for a week as their daycare was closed for a summer break. We had fun with the kids, and also with our daughter and son in law, who had just moved into a beautiful new home. We also had a birthday celebration with another son who came for a visit for a few days.

Granddaughter Going for a Walk

Backyard Soccer

Grandson has a Nap

Playground Fun

One of the highlights was taking the kids for a ride on the miniature train, which was followed, of course, by ice cream. Bubblegum was the flavour of choice.
A Train Ride With the Grandchildren


Enjoying some Ice Cream

Some Ice Cream Went into the Mouth

We have gone farther down the highway now, and are still travelling. I hope to do another blog post soon about the second half of the trip.

I feel fortunate to now have the time to travel and spend time with friends and family. Having time to spend with people I care about is my retirement bonus.



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This work by Dr Sock Writes Here is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Canada License.