Before

Before the staged reading of Raggedy’s Kingdom…

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8 pm, Monday May 30th. Storefront Theatre 955 Bloor St. West. $10 tickets–click above for more information.

It’s the morning before, about half an hour until I leave for the theatre to go rehearse for five hour with the cast.

To hear these words read in their entirety. To see people collaborate on this play for the first time in more than a cold reading setting.

I’ve done all the good luck things I can think of: lighting the last bit of incense from the first Zen temple we visited in Kyoto last September, writing thank you notes, making a big breakfast, putting on the teapot necklace that comes from my great aunt–the one who inspired this play and gave me the tools and space to let my imagination soar. I also lit a candle for you, Aunt Donna.

I might not feel this way soon, but I’m not as nervous as I thought I’d be. The difference is the audience. Yes, this is for me so I can hear the next step and understand where this play grows next.

But even more, this reading feels like it’s for you. It pains me when people post and email that they can’t attend. On the other hand, it reminds me that there’s a network out there brought together by my story in spite of prior engagements, borders, oceans, and different time zones.

I’m more excited to hear how you react and what you think and to share whatever emotions this creates. (Hopefully some fears, chills, and thrills–as it is a horror play)

Welcome to Raggedy’s Kingdom. She’s been waiting a long time to play with you…

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Poetry with Doug’s Rules for Constructive Criticism

Disclaimer: I don’t remember the actual rules from my first official writing workshop. I do distinctly remember putting them all up on a sheet of paper the afternoon before meeting our poetry instructor, Doug, at the Young Writer’s Workshop. Almost ten years ago… 

I’m putting up my “new” rules because training at my new job and interacting with my various Toronto housemates and other peers has recently highlighted to me this is a skill that not many other people seem to possess–giving and receiving criticism.

So without further ado:

  1. No disclaimers.

    You show your work, you don’t speak your biased opinions about all of it before its read/performed/etc. Why? Because if it’s not on the page, it won’t be conveyed to the readers, actors, directors, editors, designers, illustrators, etc who will be working with your writing. Learn what they know and they see first–their perspective is invaluable.

  2. Positive feedback first.

    It’s easier to listen to negative feedback when you’ve heard the good stuff first. Who wants to put more work into reworking and overhauling a piece that was no good to begin with? No one. This is how you motivate the people around you.

  3. Attribute criticism to the writing, not the author.

    Writing may be deeply personal, but what someone has written in his or her shitty first or second draft is not them. Period. Even in a final draft, it’s best not to conflate author with writing–communication is limited and faulty no matter how much it’s been polished. There’s no way to perfectly convey meaning in words.

  4. Don’t speak while the criticism is being given.

    What’s the reader going to do when something doesn’t make sense or they read a weak point? Will you be there to defend it in the moment? No! Wait until the end and then ask questions to clarify. Leave and take all the criticism with you to parse through on your own. No one has to know which pieces you take to heart and which go back into the waste bin. That’s the real journey.

  5. Listen.

    It goes hand in hand with the above point. While you are silently sitting there, let yourself hear the criticisms. Your critics, if they have also agreed to abide by these rules or similar ethics, are not there to rip you and your work to shreds. They are giving you the gift of their time, wisdom, and outsider perspective. You cannot get this from any other source in such a loving way so take it as such. You never know what gems they will offer, even if they seem like heart-wrenching demands. Kill your darlings…

  6. Come to the table with your own questions.

    If you are self-aware as much as you can be of the weak moments, the strengths, the themes and pieces you want to keep–and the places you know you want to improve–you can take charge. While you are actively listening, you can see who picks up on your questions before you share them. You can search through the criticism and determine what matches up with your point of view and what doesn’t. It’ll help you actively listen during the critique and follow up more effectively–so you’ll know exactly how to confront the next draft.

  7. Give what you want to receive.

    Yes, in workshops and critiques the golden rule also applies. Think someone’s piece was pure crap? I’m sure someone thinks that about your’s as well, that’s the nature of art and taste that your brilliance is someone else’s idea of pointless garbage. Respect that–and make sure that you give your attention and honest feedback to everyone fairly. If you can’t (sometimes workshops get poisoned with ex’s, foes, competitors, etc), be honest about why and take yourself out of the picture for a while. Good critics are hard to come by, but they are worth the effort to find and protect.

*I wanted to have 8 rules (my favorite number), or 10 (traditional for lists), but 7 does seem lucky in this case.

The more I write about these rules of good criticism and writing, the more I see how they apply to other areas of life. You couldn’t reach someone on the phone? Not your fault. You did, but they were angry? Not necessarily personal, don’t attribute it to the possibly “mean” tone of your “Hello.” And that’s just how it applies to one aspect of my day job…

And that’s what it’s really about: everything that makes me a good writer comes from what I’ve learned about the discipline of putting my words on the page and about the courage it takes to ask for feedback.

This post also commemorates my three formative summers at Session 2 of the Young Writer’s Workshop.

Chalkboard with Welcome to Young Writers Workshop!

I am heartbroken to miss the reunion this summer marking the 35th anniversary of YWW or YDubz as we so fondly called it. I heartily with everyone will have an extra pint for me, and help give me another reason to come back to teach at YWW, speak as a guest artist, or attend the next reunion.

If it weren’t for YWW, I would not be a $criptwriter today. At least that’s why I’m missing the reunion; the staged reading of my horror play Raggedy’s Kingdom is happening at Storefront Theatre on May 30th. Check it out if you’re in Toronto! (I promise it won’t be too scary)

$criptwriters for ever, cha ching!

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Oh the Horror – Staged Reading of RAGGEDY’S KINGDOM

Come hear the staged reading of my horror play, Raggedy’s Kingdom.

After a year of development through Storefront Theatre’s Inaugural Playwrights’ Unit, Raggedy’s Kingdom is ready for its first full, public reading.

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Sound familiar? I’ve been writing about this play a lot here and here.

The play

When their great aunt dies, sisters Ann and Emma must meet at her house to divide the estate. As they struggle over the inheritance, Ann must fight her worst nightmare: an antique doll named Raggedy that has come to life…

#indieunite #playwrightsSFT #newworks #indie6ix #horrorplay

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Tea from the Source: Toronto Edition

I’ve wanted to attend the Toronto Tea Festival since before I moved to Toronto. And for two years I’ve missed it… but at the end of January 2015, I finally made it there. And it was glorious.

A room filled with tea vendors. Equipped with a small glass tasting cup, I was ready.

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I didn’t think the Toronto Reference Library could get any better, but adding in a whole auditorium of tea vendors and filling it with tea enthusiasts? I was in heaven.

My favorite tea stall was Genuine Tea, a small vendor that goes straight to the source. Whether that means Taiwan, India, China, Nepal–wherever the tea is, they go there. Not only were they knowledgable, and ready to gush over the Maokong Tea Plantations in Taipei with their wonderful oolong, but they sampled me a smoked oolong that had the same peaty smell as Scotch. But tea tasted a lot better to this tea enthusiast.

We skipped the lectures because though the topics on the history of the Asian tea trade and its many health benefits interested me, Laura and I didn’t feel like sitting down. Too much tea to sample. Continue reading

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The Rule of Three’s

Physical injuries aren’t a normal occurrence in my life. And this year it seems as if I’m oddly accident-prone.

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Before the sprain…

In December, I twisted my ankle. Or foot, more accurately. While dancing at a playwriting retreat, I jumped up… and fell down. Another playwright looked at it and confirmed a sprain of some sort. But I kept dancing. Plus then I refused to stay off it, turning a slight injury into a month-long pain by returning to Zumba less than a week later and jumping up and down to T Swift’s “Shake It Off” (but how can you NOT jump up and down to that?).

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… after the fall

In January–just when I’d cleared the first injury–I proved that in at least one way I fail to pass as Canadian. About ten minutes into my first try at ice skating in four years I fell flat on my ass. Not gracefully, not humorously, and I had a bruised tailbone for at least two weeks. The Canadian boyfriend was very understanding, but it was still an embarrassing, awkward injury.

Since then, I’ve been worried that the other shoe is about to drop.

Why? Because everything comes in three’s.

Three bears, three pigs, always two falls and then the big flat on your face flop… there’s a reason there were Three Stooges, too. Continue reading

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What does it take to conquer your fears?

I’m tending to realize there’s one essential key to conquering my most paralyzing fears.

It’s that bitch of an answer I know is true but hate hearing again and again when I’m working on my writing, after painful relationship transitions, after any transition. *Sigh*

I remember sitting in Spanish class in middle school learning “paciente” and “impaciente.” And I thought the former applied to me– I was dead wrong.

Tick, tick, tick…

Time. Yeah, it all takes time.

I like it better when Amy Grant sings it, “It takes a little time sometimes…

As much as I would love to believe Fear Factor and even The Amazing Race’s Phil Keoghan that the time to do everything is RIGHT NOW, my experiences tell me that immediately facing my fears isn’t always the best approach.

Walking into a fear confrontation, fear-busting situation works best for me when I’m prepared. It takes getting myself into the right mindset. It takes getting to the point where continuing to be afraid is holding me back so much that I can see the cost, striding ahead in front of me while I hang back.

I’ve conquered a lot of fears this year.

Just this Christmas break, I went to a rock climbing gym. And I climbed up at least five different courses. All the way to the top.

Last time I went to a gym like that, I tired myself out only halfway up because I could feel the gap growing between me and the ground–and my classmates eyes’ watching me not climbing but clinging to the wall.

Sure, I didn’t look down much this time around either, but I didn’t give up–even when one of the bouldering routes made my head feel dizzy near the end. I purposefully backed off and gave up three times before one push of encouragement from my best friend finally helped me make that final grab for the last hold.

Years later, what’s the difference?

I’m no longer beating myself up for failing or putting myself in situations where I might very well fail. Not when it means telling my childhood best friend that I’d rather just get coffee. We always played such imaginary fun games as kids growing up in Tennessee, but she always took the lead on the risky things like biking, hiking, climbing, and generally staying active. I was used to being the scaredy cat who wouldn’t even play Nintendo 64 for fear of coming in last in every race.

I didn’t have to prove anything to her, I just didn’t want to miss out on the fun.

And that’s the difference: I don’t have as much to prove. The only thing driving me to confront all my fears from heights to the job search, to my childhood nightmares (see this tweet for another #horrorplay related fear I giddily conquered in November) is the natural course of what I want and need from life.

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Indy Convergence tested my fears–sharing and directing my new work.

So yeah, I still refused to step on the glass floor at the CN tower–even though it’s way safer than rock climbing. (I thought a few glasses of wine would make me more fearless… not in this case.)

And there’s part of me that respects the fears I still have enough to let them run their course, to tell their stories, to shape me into the person I’m meant to be. At least when the “impaciente” part of me isn’t screaming to just move on already…

On the other hand, now that I’ve started I have to admit: conquering fears is ADDICTING. Getting over that first hump has given me a burst of adrenaline and endorphins I want to keep pumping into my body. Just gotta keep taking deep breaths and watching and waiting for those moments when everything’s aligned for me to triumph.

When will you be ready to conquer your fears? Only time will tell… *&%t stupid *&%#ing TIME

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Beyond a Book Review: Solo, a Collection of Writer’s Pilgrimages

In this bright new year, it feels right to read about journeys. Pilgrimages, whatever that means. So I finally cracked Solo: Writers on Pilgrimage.

Solo: Writers on Pilgrimage by Katherine Govier, cover

To Margaret Atwood, it means traveling through literary and scientific history to Baffin Bay. To Katherine Govier, it means journeying to a remote mountain in Japan where The Book of Five Rings was penned by swordmaster Miyamoto Mushashi.

I could write them all out, but I’ll stop here. They are so genuine to each person, some written specifically for this collection and with its idea of “pilgrimage” in mind. And others have been reprinted for their tangential, yet illuminating representations of a pilgrimage-like journey.

I’m not traveling at this point in my life. Not in a physical way at least. If anything, I’ve just returned from two weeks for Christmas in the States. I have ideas of physical journeys for next year, dreams of great journeys for 2017 and years beyond.

And yet now I decide to read about these travel essays. Continue reading

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One Word 365: 2016 edition

Except I don’t like the “one word only” rule. I never followed it back in 2014 or 2015 so I won’t do that in 2016 either.

My phrase?

Take yourself to zero.

It’s a phrase Ghandi used to like to say. I found it in a chapter dedicated to Ghandi and this particular mantra in Stephen Cope’s The Great Work of Your Life.

But here’s the other thing–

I’m not going to explain it.

I could try, but most of the fun of this phrase is that I don’t know what it means. Again, I have some ideas.

This phrase reminds me to work toward my goals not for the end point but for the journey. It doesn’t tell me yet again to “trust the process” because let’s be honest: after the past year, I hate my process. It’s deeply mine both in a life path and in a career/writing/artistic way but that doesn’t mean I love it all the time. It’s like a family member that bugs me but that I grudgingly acknowledge shares at least 50% of my DNA, probably more, and, therefore, I can’t lock it out of the house.

Sigh.

I could say more, try to attach more words and stories and pictures to it, but I’m not. That’s something else I learned this fall, from Ed Catmull and all his Pixar-gained wisdom.

Mantras are dangerous.

Not on their own, but when repeated over and over again until all context is stripped away and they become a placeholder for ACTION and active thought.

I’m not going to become static and I will not let these words become just words on my wall.

I don’t know what they mean but I’m willing to take the next year focusing on them and a few projects. Instead of putting a conclusion up on the wall, I’m going to let go of the ending and my place in it until it’s there in front of me.

Speaking of which, that’s where I’m at in terms of developing my horror play with the Storefront Playwright’s Unit: tricking myself into letting go of the fact that I still don’t know the ending. Or do I?…

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Beyond a Book Review: The Great Work of Your Life by Stephen Cope

The second nonfiction book I read after returning from Asia. I’ve been lucky with three amazing choices over the past few months–here was the first.

I waited to write about The Great Work of Your Life by Stephen Cope because every time I thought about revealing its work in my life over the past few months, something held me back. A little voice kept saying: “There’s more to come.” Trusting in this book helped me overcome an obstacle that has plagued me especially in the past three years: the job search.

With “Work” in the title, I didn’t want to read this book. And yet when I returned to Toronto and renewed my job search, I felt it was time to take as much advice as possible.

What I found wasn’t job advice, career guidance, or anything temporary like that. I found a contemporary explanation of the Bhagavad Gita. I found answers to why I’d felt such paralyzing doubt for the past year.

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I rediscovered Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.”

Many of Cope’s examples of individuals who had the courage to follow their dharma inspired me, especially Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, and Ludwig van Beethoven (the subject of my very first oral report back in the second grade, funnily enough). But Robert Frost finally helped me unlock the confidence to follow my own gut, my own inner voice, my God-given dharma. Continue reading

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Beyond a Book Review: Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull

When I returned from Asia, still burnt out on struggling to make things work, I didn’t think a nonfiction book written by Pixar’s President would help me feel ready to get back to work. But it was the first book on my list.

Before I left, playwright and producer Jordi Mand had suggested it to me after I mentioned my intense summer of writing screenplays for children’s animated television. Though I was dreading to re-start reading with career-related nonfiction, I knew I couldn’t leave it for later. It would either help me get back into the groove or convince me that I need to change career aspirations.

Thankfully, it inspired me to dive back into creativity… and now I’m recommending Creativity, Inc. to everyone.

I could list so many reasons why I responded so strongly to this book and Ed Catmull’s examples. Like him I also had a passion for Disney and Disney only as a child. At age eight, I wanted to be a cartoonist and whenever my parents suggested Hanna Barbara or reminded me of the equally talented artists behind Looney Tunes and The Flintstones, I shook my head and slipped Beauty and the Beast or Aladdin back into the VHS player. [I’m more open-minded now, but this book did nothing to turn me away from Disney.]

Jumping back into Toronto art life with Nuit Blanche projects.

Jumping back into Toronto art life with Nuit Blanche projects.

I could explain how this book is almost more about successfully working with people, no matter what the profession than it is about managing your personal creative life. Mr. Catmull uses Pixar and Disney Animation as case studies on how to create creative businesses built on values that respect the individual and the group–and since he outlines the threats of being sold, threatened, repurchased, and merged he’s faced as president, it’s pretty compelling stuff for any business-mind to read as well (especially for those of us who don’t identify that way).

But I also took away a lot of tools for keeping my own creative mind primed and ready for challenges: external, internal, constructive, and destructive feedback.

My favorite Creativity, Inc tool: mental models.

Continue reading

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