a question of intention in writing

I received this from a writer friend:

In my writing group we were discussing how writers start writing. Do they start with an intention as in an overall theme statement?

My thoughts go to Arthur Miller, who said that if he knew the theme to the work before being two-thirds through, the work was suspect. He felt he shouldn’t know. Writing is an act of exploration.

I think this: no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.

I remember finding those words of his, and feeling a deep sense of relief (how we don’t trust ourselves!) because I’d always felt some guilt over not really knowing/ understanding my path when I began to work on a project.

When I talk with school groups, the subject of “planning” comes up. It ALWAYS comes up. Teachers are particularly eager to hear this. If, in the Q&A time, the question hasn’t come up from the students, then the teachers ask it. Of course, they are confident that I will give some cred to the words they’ve been repeating since September: plan, plan, plan.

As a young person I was one of those students who would quickly write the entire book report or project so that I could back-track and write the dreaded “outline” on schedule…then pretend to write the longer piece afterwards. I could not write an outline until after the project was complete…or at least the first draft. (Yes, teachers DO love me when I talk about re-writing. Re-writing IS writing. Planning is something else.)

I will say: MANY writers can and do plan, and it works well for them. Or they’ll plan to a certain degree, or point in the story. Fair to say, too, that for certain genres there are types of planning that do not interfere with “exploration.” A mystery, for example, might take a certain shape, but the elements of character development can still be discovery.

My books have begun with an historical question or a question about something in our society that is poking at me with something sharp (here, I have to go with caution), a title (yes, all on its own), an image, a fleeting glimpse of a character who puzzles me. Perhaps most often, a setting. Mud Girl was all about the setting to begin with. For me, if the first element of a story to enter into my mind is the Theme, then I become very anxious about it.

This may be because of my background. I grew up with dogma. I try hard to avoid dogma. Perhaps for a writer who has grown up in another way, working with a controlling theme from the moment of genesis is comfortable. But for me, it isn’t. In fact, in the last few weeks I’ve abandoned a project whose “theme” came early on. Too early. And I’ve been wrestling it back to a place of “discovery” since. I’ve moved on to another project. After 172 pages.

Maybe it’s a question of why we write. Back to those school projects: as children and early-year uni students, we write to study others’ words. We are not taught or guided to find our own thoughts. No one seems to think about this possibility…until grad school. So, all the “planning” takes place. You can plan when you know–or want to think you know!–exactly where you’re going.  Imagine if we told students to “write until you discover something new about yourself or the world.” It would be a challenge in the 22 minutes allotted in the lesson plan. But this should be the point in writing, in painting, in dancing, and creating music.

Some writers talk about taking that “theme sentence” and writing it in big letters and hanging it over their workspace. Reminding themselves what it’s all about. Maybe. Maybe that’s what your story is all about. Is that what writing is all about? Is it ALL your story is about? Might you go zooming to that place…and miss something on the way?

What do you want from writing? From your practice of sitting at the desk?

I’ll be interested in your responses. I hope someone disagrees. Or something. I have no idea where this will go. Let’s see.



final “short report” on Book Week

Oh, it’s TOUGH to write short!

How can I evoke “magical week” in short? I’ll try.


small town libraries that feel to be so much a “hub” of their community;

teens thinking—seriously—about careers in arts (oh, can’t put the sound of buzzing bursting minds in a photograph!);

pre-schooler in jammies and train slippers, out for an evening in the library;

round, round, wondering eyes, and dozens of hand-made, wrought with thought, Thank you cards;

bank employees, leaving their stations, sitting on the floor like schoolchildren gathered for a story;

pot-luck lunch and rattly taxi disguised as a family mini-van;

gathering of young people faces together with my cousin and my grand-great-aunt, listening;

VIA rail, passing towns, passing lolloping cows, and a lone chicken walking through a wood, passing children with grandpas waiting to wave at the train–yes, three children     with grandpas (they still do that!);

You CAN fit a big old chunk of this country into a snapshot—don’t ever think you can’t.

What does it mean now, now that I’m home? I pack up a box of books and send it to a school in Kapuskasing, and feel a Connection. I sit at my lone, early morning writing time, and feel a Purpose. Readers have faces and hands and hearts.

Humbly: Thank you for the reminders, all of you, for each reminder.




St. Mary’s water tower…





Bearskin airlines plane from Timmins to Kapuskasing–no arguing about who gets the aisle and who gets the window seat!

last day: Book Week in Ontario

Kapuskasing. A magical word to me as a child. Where my Mom was from. Where there was Family. Great Grand-Mere. Great Aunts and Uncles. Twelve of them. And cousins and cousins and cousins.

It meant so much for me to be there. My cousin met me at the airport (after a 14-seater plane ride! with ROARING engine) and in the morning (frosty!!) we went to the school. Right by the front door was an AMAZING display of visuals from The Cul-de-Sac Kids! (And funny: someone had placed a training-wheels bike right next to it, which connected completely with my presentation!)

For lunch, the teachers had a pot-luck. And I had a conversation with a music teacher about…what else…arts careers! and how to sustain them..seems to have become a theme of the week: follow your passion and it will work. Had the same conversation with the newspaper reporter who came to interview me after the second presentation of the day. The students–two groups of grades 1-4 and 5-8–were terrific, with more Good Questions.

And to close the day, a trip to the local branch of the TD Bank! Who makes it all happen. So we had a quick read.

Magic happens in many forms. Often, money has nothing to do with creating magic. And other times, money has so much to do with it! If you know me, you know that I’m a hippie who doesn’t think well of the directions that business ethics often take. So when I acknowledge and say huge positives about an organization or business, it’s Big Stuff for me. So here: Thank you, thank you TD Canada Trust for what you do for children’s literacy, literature and book and story creators in this country! Thank you for a most magical week.

And thank you to CCBC–the Canadian Children’s Book Centre–and Monica Winkler, for administering and organizing, Canada Council (funding readings for public), and also all of the teachers and librarians who volunteer to organize on their ends. And Niki, driver- extraordinaire! And my cousins, Lorraine, Pauline, and Gaby, for driving me to presentations.

And all the young folks who listen, ask, learn, READ, and write! Keep on rocking in a free world!

Thursday, May 10 the adventure continues

Had terrific fun with grades 1 and 2, talking up more “Funny Writing” and then grades 3 and 4 “Re-VISION-ing.”

And sold every book I carried in the doors. And left a few unhappy that there weren’t any left! PLEASE go to your local bookstore and ask for THE CUL-DE-SAC KIDS. And you can let them know the ISBN.  That’s the little International Book Number on the back of the book by the funny little barcodey thing: 9781896580999. It MAKES MY DAY when someone goes to a bookstore and ORDERS the book (because then the folks who own the bookstore know my book is out there…THANKS!)

Any school with a picture like THIS in the office has to be a good place… Thanks for a great morning, K-W Bilingual School (Kitchener)!

They’re HERE…and I’m going there…

Yeah! I picked up 76 copies of The Cul-de-Sac Kids from Tradewind Books on Granville Island last Friday. Emmett and a friend and I were heading down to Science World, in keeping with our “Field Trip Fridays” thing (saw a wonderful movie on the BC part of the Canadian Railway!) and stopped in. I carried the box from the office to the van–and realized this is not good for my ageing back! Had to plop them in the car and reward myself by going to get some of that amazing Turkish Delight from the wee candy place in the Island market. (Or, as my middle son used to say, “Tuggish Delight”–when reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.)

So here they are:






And yesterday I hit the local thrift shop to find myself a suitcase ON WHEELS. After all, there’s only so much Turkish Delight I can reward myself with…

Airing it out on the deck…








Now off to Ottawa, Toronto, St. Mary’s (home of Canada’s Baseball Hall of Fame!), Waterloo, and my mom’s hometown, Kapuskasing!