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Letter To a Young Writing Coach

[4-minute read]

Armed, but not sufficiently dangerous.

Dear S.:

I’m a coach myself — basketball, mainly — and I taught writing forever. I’m a chalk- and red-ink-stained wretch, so despite my bride’s entreaties, and the general on-line encouragement I’ve gotten from you, I still don’t want a writing coach. Stubborn? Maybe. I persist in wanting to lift myself by my own bootstraps; mind you, the physics of that is still mysterious to me. After quite a few years of not exactly setting the WordWorld on fire, I still want one of two outcomes: slay this ridiculous dragon of vaguely literary desire, or find a way to harness the sucker all by myself. That doesn’t mean I don’t look for inspiration, tools and writing-my-way-out-of-the-wilderness tips, though.
Mostly because of a suggestion from Margaret Atwood — via her Twitter account, that is — I follow Chuck Wendig and his fiery, rude and funny advice to his on-line band of fellow “pen-monkeys”. That’s also how I wound up lurking near Story is a State of Mind. (Your gentle, organic counsel makes for a very interesting counterpoint to his, as far as voices in a struggling writer’s ear go!) I’ve subscribed to your daily writer’s prompts for months. Never used ’em, and yup, I sometimes rolled my eyes. (“Write about the taste of rain.” Yeah, right.) Hey, listen: I know what you’re pushing me to do. I was a writing teacher in small-town high schools for years, and I, too, gave eye-rollingly absurd suggestions as Journal Topics for the Day: break OUT, guys, try stuff, just get your pen going and then you can go wherever you (or IT) want(s)… The taste of rain wouldn’t have gotten me anywhere with tenth-graders.
I’ve been dry for a while, but I’m back in the saddle. Hit a big birthday, saved up for it by giving myself licence to NOT write ’til the day came, which siphoned a full tank of frustration out of the top half of August. (Good for me.) Since my birthday crepes, I’ve been trying to act more like a pro, showing up at the desk, grinding. Bird by bird, buddy. (I’m sure you get that reference.¹) I’m also a big fan of Steven Pressfield’s War of Art, and yesterday began re-re-re-rereading it with some dear ones. Three of us, at least, clearly aspire to Writingness and can hear the clock tsk, tsk, tsk-ing away. And yes, I’m on a two-week roll, which is lovely, and to get to the point, I’ve finally started using your prompts, blue pen in my own Journal. (And I did write about the taste of rain. Got down some nasty/good stuff I liked and might use, among the blathering. I got going.)

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A Girl Just Like the Girl

This is a small love letter to the woman I woke up with this Mother’s Day morning. She’d been groaning, sneezing and muttering semi-coherently for a couple of achy days, but today she just feels a little crappy. Her 12-year-old son was a little off this morning, too, after a late-night binge of Marvel comic heroes, and managed to soil his hand-crafted M-D artwork with a surly Well, I gave you a card, didn’t I? His father, disgruntled at the attitude, had to nonetheless admit that he hadn’t come up with even the card. It’s all that my girl really wants on this (and her birth) day.

I knew when I married her that she was eager to be a mother, but I hadn’t known how good she’d be at it. She’s a woman of quicksilver emotions, a ResultsMaker, and when we finally decided it was time to face the reality of my single-dad situation, her first meeting with my three sons was a sit-com disaster without the laugh-track. (Well, I did chuckle ruefully, resignedly, when I thought, after months of sweet, scary and resuscitating courtship, Well, this just isn’t going to work at ALL.)

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Action de Grace

In English, we call it Thanksgiving. (In Canada, it’s generally the second Monday in October. Hope yours was happy. My American friends will have to wait a while for their gobble-fest, but maybe this will give you some early appetite for thinking.)

ThanksGIVING. Give thanks and then give whatever else you can. I like that the word action appears in the French name of this wonderful excuse for a long weekend, and so I made it my title. This is clearly my favourite generally celebrated holiday of the year. (Nothing beats Naw-Ruz.) It’s all about the verbs. It’s all about gratitude being something that we actively DO, and not only feel.

Live life with an attitude of gratitude. This clunky little rhyme has become a popular motto of how to live well, and it’s a good one. (The Globe and Mail’s Judith Timson called it the “platitude of gratitude” — it may have been Anthony Robbins who originated or popularized the expression — but went on in her column last weekend to show how this admitted cliché is important to health and contentment.) For the last ten years or so, the Howden Thanksgiving shindig has featured not only turkey, Chris’s broccoli casserole, and the food-like, cottage-cheese-and-jello collision we call Pink Stuff, but also a thankfulness circle. Everyone offers a few words. Some offer a few more, not that my brother was counting or anything. It gets sweeter every year, it seems.

Over and over, we were thankful for faith and caring, for friends and community and for family, behind and beneath and above all. Our numbers and our general harmony suggest that we’re a fortunate crew. What follows is no transcript, but offers some of the ways my family circle raised its many voices in gratitude…

…for all my memories of the example of my parents
…for the richness of opportunity that we enjoy in our fortunate nation
…for the strength and support of my brothers
…for the chance to get to work and laugh and just hang out with my sisters
…for my sons, who have taught me to be a better Dad
…to my wife, who teaches me to be a better person
…that people are more environmentally responsible for this beautiful planet
…for sports ‘cause I really like sports
…for memorizing scripture verses and for music
…to be in love with my husband/wife
…for my job, and for my BOSS who’s a really cool guy
…to my parents for teaching me right from wrong
…for going to the rink, where the parents know and care for each other
…for the unconditional love – and the occasional indifference! – of pets
…for my time living in a different culture in the Arctic, a place I’ll return to
…for good times in the kitchen
…for another year at school
…for the chance to keep on learning and trying new things
…for having friends in their 90s, friends in their teens, and everything in between
…for the ability to always “go home in my heart”                                               …that I live in a family where we take advantage of each other (in a good way!)

A poet wrote: i thank you god for most this amazing / day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees / and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything / which is natural which is infinite which is yes… I’m grateful for this beginning to an odd sweet sonnet from e.e. cummings, one that I recited when a second marriage opened up the windows on a stuffy life. I’m glad to have, touch wood, overcome the ankle pain that had made even the simplest act of near-athleticism seem like a pole vault with no pole; my Thanksgiving run was a 10-k canter along leafy, mist-laden country roads. I’m blessed by the lives and affections of my bride and boys, whose movements inspire and inform my own. One week after I failed to mention UNESCO’s World Teachers’ Day, I am ever more grateful for all who have taught me. And for words, of course, and especially for words like these of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, a good start to any old day (or a New one!): O compassionate God! Thanks be to Thee for Thou hast awakened and made me conscious. Thou hast given me a seeing eye and favoured me with a hearing ear…

An old-fashioned definition of a gentleman says that he goes out of his way to make others comfortable. This is loving kindness, really, and all of us can do it. Love is not a feeling, I was once taught, but an action, doing for others what they most need (and as we would be done by). Feeling gratitude, it says here, is doing for ourselves what is best for us. And then we can go beyond feeling and give back, an action that testifies to our own good fortune and spreads it around. Thanksgiving is a brief festival, but it should infect our whole year. There is a lot of gratitude to be done. Action de Grâce, indeed.

Learning About Islam III

Two final points that I took home from a Saturday with an Islamic scholar, Dr. Todd Lawson. We were asked to define “Islam”, and some of us were able to come up with the standard World Religions course meaning: “submission to the will of God”. Dr. Lawson went farther. (I won’t trouble you with the Arabic explanations, which I’d be sure to butcher anyway.) On a personal level, adherence to Islam can be defined as the opposite of those who were (or are) “ungrateful”. Therefore, it signifies a grateful commitment to divine teachings as given by Muhammad. On a societal level, Islam defines itself as the opposite of the ignorance that produces savagery and barbarism and mercilessness. Even today, a genuine understanding of Islam defines it as civilization, enlightenment and peace.

So why do we speak of the “clash of civilizations”? Why does the “war on terror” so easily come to appear as a “war on Islam”? Dr. Lawson was emphatic: “There is a widespread, nearly universal belief among the powers-that-be in the West that we have nothing to learn from Islam and Islamic peoples.” That cultural arrogance, he believes, must be eroded in order for understanding to be created. He reminded us that “certitude – about faith, about the spiritual life – is one of the great enduring treasures of the legacy of Islam.” Such confidence about life’s meaning, at the very least, is one of the things we can learn.

As is this: it was the Qur’án, among sacred scriptures, that first spoke of the concept of humanity, of the commonality of human beings living in a shared world. It also accounts for why the world was made with different communities and peoples rather than united from the start: “that they might know one another,” in the sense of mutual experience and understanding. How modern is that? In a world such as ours, in a country like mine, these encounters happen constantly. We’re learning from Islam, whether we want to or not. We should try to learn the right stuff. Fast.