Circles

So, after fourteen years or so where we are now, we’re moving. The house we bought used to be my dad’s—well, actually, my whole family’s. And they say you can’t go home again!

My new office is my old bedroom. Bizarre. And as I pulled out its carpet and built-in closet, then proceeded to paint the room a deep golden yellow called Bengalese Cream, I thought about circles—ones I want to continue and bring back to full strength (the gardens and flowerbeds, the yard!), and ones I want to break entirely, once and for all (for example, a genetic propensity for . . . collecting).

Memories crouch in every corner and sit on every shelf in my new-old house, and as in any life, some are wonderful . . . others not so much.

My little nephew visited one day while I was emptying out the kitchen, and found a smiley-faced toy carrot on a coffee table in the living room. “Hey, I remember this!” he exclaimed with delight—then his tone grew suspicious. “Wait, you’re not throwing it away are you?”

I assured him that no, I wasn’t throwing it away. It was a keeper. And it is. I think, literally, every child and grandchild of Simon and Susanne Higginson has chewed on that rubbery, squeaking toy. It’s practically an institution.

But I am recycling, gifting, selling, or scrap-yarding almost everything else. I have my own stuff, literally and metaphorically, to put into the house now.

At first I felt bad clearing things out, but time moves on and life constantly changes, regardless of the physical items we cling on to, trying to pretend nothing’s different. The task then is to carefully choose a few things that have special significance and pass on everything else to people who can use it better than you. Or that’s my aim anyway.

An antique doughboy in the entrance way will take its place in the living room once more. How can it not? Every time I see it, my sister’s a laughing toddler again, magazines strewn about her, waving, wildly proud, from the compartment she’s standing in.

A wardrobe from the 1800s reminds me of times spent in antique shops and second-hand stores with my mom.

A child-sized workbench, handmade by my dad, will remain in the garage. I can’t wait to outfit it with new tools (The labels for what should hang where are still there!) and restock it with miscellaneous lengths of wood for visiting kids to create with.

I’ve found a number of things we’d all thought lost forever, most notably a whole collection of pictures of one of my brothers. They’d been carefully pilfered out of the collection and mounted on poster board for his wedding. We all just forgot. It was profoundly sweet to look at this lifetime of childhood photos, chosen and arranged by my mom’s hand. You can feel the love—and the fun—she had in putting it together.

Other discoveries are as surprising and painful as a slip of a knife. A card from my husband’s mom (now deceased) to my mom when she was dying. Old letters from my parents to each other when they were fighting. Syringes, long outdated prescriptions, and other paraphernalia related to disease.

I wonder sometimes if I’m up to the task of taking on my family home, with all that concept entails—and while the verdict’s not in (It’s sort of a multi-year project), so far I’m pleasantly surprised and get a little more excited, a little more confident, about our decision every day.

The work is cathartic. I feel my parents smile at me occasionally. My mom shakes her head. “You’re not really going to keep that old thing are you, Ev?” My dad’s voice booms as I heft junk down the stairs: “Yep, you’ve always been a big strong girl.” (You can just imagine how I loved hearing that as a teen!) And in the kitchen, memories of my stepmom’s meals and baked treats inspire daydreams about future family events at the home I’ve circled back to . . .

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“Circles” by me, Ev Bishop, was originally published in the Terrace Standard, June 26, 2013 as my monthly column “Just a Thought.”

Ms. Bishop. In the Library. With the Coffee Mug.

Photo by Ev Bishop

Photo by Ev Bishop

I started to spring clean. I got as far as my library shelves and office cabinet.

I’m prone to flights of daydreaming and distraction at the best of times, but when I’m supposed to be tidying books? Heaven help me! All those ideas, all those adventures, all those life-changing worlds and words . . .

I’ve been known to box up books, only to go back and rescue select titles. I keep doubles of some novels—because they’re that good and because it is a truth universally acknowledged that if you loan books, you rarely get them back. (Of course that fact means I rarely lend in the first place, but I like doubles in case, you know, I start.)

Anyway, armed with fresh coffee, a multitude of multi-sized cardboard boxes, and a belly full of steely resolve, I headed to my miniature library.

I’d just gotten through my writing-related books (mostly keepers), when the biggest killer of productivity, house-cleaning wishes, and de-junking desires hit me: an interesting thought. My brother had been sorting my Dad’s books and commented that you can learn a lot about people from their bookcases.

I found his theory interesting. So interesting that I lost several hours to perusing titles with an eye to what secrets my books might tell about my psyche, obsessions, and beliefs, instead of focussing on whether or not I would ever actually read or refer to them again.

A deer skull (complete with lower jaw and teeth) sits atop one row of books (Christianity and other faith and religion texts). I’m not sure what that says.

A bottle of wine lounges on its side, coming of age in the lofty company of modern literary fiction greats like Joy Kogawa, Barbara Gowdy, Wally Lamb, and Eden Robinson. Why am I storing a bottle of wine there? To make the classic authors a shelf above and a shelf below jealous? Perhaps. Also, it looks kind of pretty.

I have a lot of science fiction—Orwell, Bradbury, H.G.Wells, Asimov and Silverman, Heinlein, Robert J Sawyer. . . .

A full shelf homes titles by authors who are also personal friends. And another carries autographed works. And I have a small (but growing!) section with books that carry stories by me.

I have gads of Stephen King, almost the full Merrily Watkins series by Phil Rickman (highly recommended, by the way), Diana Gabaldon’s wonderful genre-bending Outlander series, and a myriad of other scary or scintillating tales. They hulk in the shadows, balancing the sweetness and light of my Jan Karon and Maeve Binchy books.

As my children grew, I parted with any kids’ books that were lame—but as children and YA writers are top storytellers in my books (Ha ha, pun intended!), I still have one full five-shelf case of “must keeps.”

My collection is roughly 1/5 non-fiction (but within that, a full shelf is devoted to poetry), with a higher concentration of writing craft and religious texts—but lots of history, social sciences, and philosophy, too

What fascinated me most circles back to my original goal of pruning my collection. Weirdly, it’s not the best books I have the hardest time parting with. The story between the covers isn’t my only consideration—nor the information relayed, nor the style, humour, or power with which the author writes. Not even my firm “Will you ever read this again?” question actually determines whether I cull or not. No, what really hampers my ability to part with a book is the story within the story.

I bought this for Marriah and Christopher at that little bookstore when we were on holidays on the Island.

My aunt and I spotted this book at the same time. She let me have it, but I “owed” her.

This was the first book I read after my mom died.

Aw, this is the one Chris read to Christopher all the time!

Breaking Smith’s Quarter Horse! My dad was obsessed with this forever.

And that—the notion that the story within a book is only part of the reason it keeps its spot when another, arguably far superior, might be pulled—was eye opening. I’ve long fought junk collecting because I know what a trap it can become. I had no idea that the psychology behind why I hold onto some books is similar to why some people can’t get rid of broken toys, old clothes, or boxes of knick-knacks they haven’t looked at in years.

I’m happy to say I did complete my library/office weed through. I now have space to justify new books.

The shoe closet and the kitchen cupboards are next. I’m a little scared. If you think I build sentimental, unrelated attachments to books easily, you should see what I can associate with old mixing bowls or a pair of satin slippers!

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“Ms. Bishop. In the Library. With the Coffee Mug” by me, Ev Bishop, was originally published in the Terrace Standard, March 27, 2013 as my monthly column “Just a Thought.”

Head Space

“Through a glass…” Copyright Ev Bishop 2012

I spent a big part of last weekend carousing through local artists’ studios. (Okay, okay, I wasn’t exactly carousing, but I was having a lot of fun.)

Quite a few of the studios, on top of being enviable workplaces, were works of art—beautifully designed, every detail and colour, texture and nuance revealing much about the artist they home.

Other studios, no less wonderful and inspiring, were more about the pure work of creating: no surface or wall or floor too special for accidental paint spatter or clay dust. Mess, glorious mess, abounded in some (to my huge comfort as I like to work in a clutter, too).

Still others were more impromptu—one amazing painter worked in a makeshift aquarium for lack of a better word, a table in the middle of a parking lot downtown with a plastic “cage” around it, so the spray paint he works with wouldn’t go awry.

In all, the evidence, thrill and reward of labour was everywhere.

I came away from the two days inspired to work, work, work, more in love with (and grateful for) my own little office than ever, and struck by an intriguing (to me) contrast between the artist spaces I visited and my own writing haven.

Almost without exception the artist studios were filled with light. Huge windows let the world in, bringing what the outside closer to view, closer in. One studio (Noreen Spence’s!) is shaped like a hexagon and juts from the side of her home like a turret. It is floor to ceiling windows on four or five sides; being in it is like being suspended in air or sitting in a tree watching the world around you.

My writing space is a nook in the heart of my house, built intentionally into a corner, with no windows to distract me as I work at bringing what is deeply inside out. If Noreen’s space is an open-branched tree, mine is a small, brightly lit cave. Both are lovely, if very different in the head space they suggest for our individual creative processes—and those differences fascinated me.

If you get a chance to visit local artists’ workplaces, I really recommend it—great fun, but also affirming and encouraging.

Inklings, Procrastinators and . . . me

C.S. Lewis is one of my favourite writers. I love his Narnia creations, and his books on Christian faith (most notably, Mere Christianity and The Problem With Pain) were instrumental in bringing me to Christ. It was, however, his writing in A Grief Observed that most spoke to me. Though losing a wife and losing a mother are ultimately different; loss is ultimately the same and Lewis’s honest writings about sorrow helped me. And re-affirmed my conviction that books and story—fiction and non—are crucial helpers to us humans as we try to figure out how to live and what it mean to be, well, human. It’s not giving Lewis too much credit to say he’s one of the reasons* I started writing again.

But it’s not really C.S. Lewis I want to write about today. It’s his Inklings—a writing group that, from what I’ve gathered, consisted of twelve or so members (including J.R.R. Tolkien). I won’t embarrass myself with the romantic view I have of the bunch holed up in some pub, corner of a library, or ancient book and antique laden reading room. I won’t confess that thinking of them, I always feel the warmth of a crackling fire glowing from a grate and see it casting looming shadows of the literary greats along the walls—shadows that grow as their stories did, well into the night. And I won’t admit that I’m sure they always drank port—its scarlet red shimmering as firelight refracted off the crystal glasses containing it—cheers! And of course there’s cigar smoke. And equally of course, somehow said smoke is sweet and mellow and doesn’t make me gag or give me a headache just being in the same room with it.**

Oh, how jealous I was of his writing group! And then I got to be part of my own—a smaller group, though, I think, not lesser for being less. We try to meet in person once a year or so (and usually manage to, thanks in part to the huge pull of SiWC—but it’s tricky as we hail from different parts of B.C., and now, London, England), and we meet online regularly in a private forum called Procrastination (which makes us Procrastinators now, doesn’t it?). We drink lots of tea and coffee—and only occasionally port. I do have a wood fire that warms me—or at least the living room near me. We all have tonnes of books—or at least read tonnes of books. I don’t smoke cigars, but can’t speak for the others in the group.

I wish I lived in a place where we could all be together, at least monthly, but I can’t complain too much because I live in a time where despite huge geographical differences, we can still maintain very close relationships and share our words in real time, almost instantaneously.

It has been said that C.S. Lewis would’ve written and published all that he did without the Inklings (and the same has been said of Tolkien), and I suspect that may be true—at least partially. I think his writing community was a huge help to him, creatively and emotionally and practically.

The writing life can be a lonely, misunderstood and alienating (except when it’s the glorious opposite of all those things!). The writing craft is daunting—you only master one thing to notice six other problems you’d never even thought of dealing with. And the publishing world? Well, let’s just say it’s always been rife with tales of doom and gloom and the end of books and reading—not the happiest news when one’s trying to eke out a living with their words. Meeting with kindred spirits who like you, who like your stories, who are kind and funny and compassionate—even while they’ll straightforwardly tell you what is and isn’t working with your stories—keep you keeping on.

In James W. Miller’s review of Diana Pavlac Glyer’s The Company They Keep: C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien as Writers in Community, *** he says that, “using a formula for determining influence created by another scholar, Karen Lefevre, Glyer analyzes the way the Inklings served as Resonators (encouraging voices), Opponents (thoughtful critics), Editors, and Collaborators (project teammates) for one another. She then adds her own fifth category, that they were Referents who wrote about one another and promoted one another’s books to publishers and the public.”

When I read that description, I thought, Egad—I’m so lucky! I have the good fortune of being part of a community like that too.

How about you? What is your writing community like? Are you part of a writing group? Does it have a name? Is it a face-to-face group or an online one? Do you feel there’s an advantage to either type of meeting?

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* Well, him, Stephen King, and Julia Cameron—bwahahahaha, what a combination! I wonder what on earth they’d think of being grouped together?)

** I don’t know if I ever stumbled across this picture and description before I googled, “c s lewis inklings pictures,” but apparently my imagination was well fed! ;)

*** A book I haven’t read yet, but that’s totally on my list now that I’ve read fifteen or so reviews about it.

Get Thee to a Conference!

I can’t believe that this time last week I was at SiWC sitting in a workshop called Polish and Shine led by Elizabeth Engstrom (fantastic class!). This Saturday is decidedly less glamorous and thrilling.

All this past week I rode the post conference high, but now the fuzzy glow is fading just a bit (or being blocked from my immediate view!) in the face of the dishes stacking up, the floors being in serious need of a sweep and mop (oh, my dogs–gotta love’em; wish I could shave’em!), the laundry and meals that never cease to need doing/making, and the bathroom, argh, the bathroom! Let’s just not talk about it. . . However, all grumbling and moping aside, my newly reaffirmed goals remain clear and focussed. My inspiration is freshly topped. And when I think of all I want to do, plan to do, need to do . . . Yes, I feel a bit intimidated, but even more, I feel stoked: being surrounded by 600+ writers for four days is seriously motivating.

Almost every year I hesitate before I hit submit to register for SiWC (my annual conference ;-)). Then I recall what it does for me: refuels me for another twelve months, reminds me that yes, writing is a solitary pursuit, but that I am not alone. Literally hundreds upon hundreds of other people identify with and embrace a similar madness!

Meeting with like minds (or at least similarly bent ones), being surrounded by a crowd of folks who really “get” this strange obsession you have with stories and words, and having the chance to learn from others in different places in the writing path than you–well, corny as it sounds, it’s priceless.

Not cost-free though. I’m already starting to put money away for next year, and I think you should do the same.

And less you’re not convinced you or your writing are worth the extravagance of a first conference (or a third, a tenth, a twentieth!), what am I doing right now? Sitting down to write while the house is empty and clear, dirty and in need of a clean as it is–and that’s the whole point, isn’t it? We want to be writers, so we write. We don’t need conferences to give us permission or to remind us–but they do help us remember it. If you have the chance to take part in a writer’s conference, big or small, nearby or far, I really recommend it. It makes all the time we spend in solitary sweet.

Where I Write . . .

My officeTwo blogs that I love to frequent – Murderati and scribo ergo sum – recently had posts about writing spaces: Murderati over a period of weeks as its multiple authors take turns describing and sharing pictures (you’ll just have to visit the site and scroll back through recent weeks for all the lovely inspiring nooks and crannies) and Jen Brubacher here sharing her own unique view of her own little niche in London.

It got me thinking and dreaming a little about where I write. I always wanted to be one of those coffee shop writers who wear cool clothes, smoke endless cigarettes (Whoops, that’s politically incorrect now, isn’t it? — That was my 80s’ daydream. Smoking wasn’t as bad then!), and write reams and reams of brilliant prose inspired by, yet simultaneously oblivious to, the streams of humanity walking past the window, fighting at the table beside them, flirting with or harassing the barista . . .

I wanted to be Hemingwayesque, writing in some Cuban bar that would eventually name a drink after me . . .

I wanted to be ferreted away in some ancient ivy-ridden library–a serious academic with thick, non chic glasses (so non chic that they were chic!). I wanted to have my work space be the turret in an old Victorian styled house overlooking the ocean . . . I wanted to write in . . .

Truth be told, none of those venues suit me. I like absolute quiet or the white noise of my family crashing about the house, doing their thing around me. I can’t be in too interesting a place or all I do is people watch or explore.

I write in an odd little space in the heart of my home — literally the walk through point to get to any part of the house — at a little corner desk designed and handcrafted for me by my husband. The walls have an ever changing assortment of post it notes, quotes, cartoons, postcards, to do lists and random artwork. The shelf contains bottles, sea glass, old spoons, sea shells, rocks, pine cones, fishing net, a tea set, lots of dust and well, other curiosities and pretties that caught my imagination during a walk or explore.

My alter-ego Bobblehead Ev (or Mev, a.k.a. Mini Ev, actually) and her mini Bert sidekick (who, of course, matches my Bert sidekick) keep me company. I stash a lot of pens plus junk in my first “big girl” mug–a yellow smiley orb that’s totally awesome.

It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I love that it doesn’t have windows. When I stare ahead all I see is the world inside my head. But I also love that I’ve layered it with lots of doodads to distract inspire me.

It’s always immaculately tidy or a huge jumbled mess. There’s no middle ground. And hands down, it’s where I think and dream best.

How about you? Where do you write? In a specific spot or nest or on the fly where ever the muse takes you?

p.s. I’m definitely not the only writer/reader interested in writers’ workplaces. Google “writers’ spaces” and have fun!