Wednesday Workshop: Narrative and Transition


Narrative and Transition
Wednesday Workshop
28 February 2018

Narrative and film have much in common. How do we tell a story? How do we tell it in words? How do we tell it in pictures? How do we tell it when we combine words and pictures? There is so much to learn about narrative from film.

I am watching a very “amateur” film on tv. The script editor is fallible and strange things are happening.  The protagonist’s car, covered in snow, turns a corner and comes out shiny black, not a snow flake on it. Hey: who are you kidding? We live in Canada. The back seat of the car is piled with luggage. The passenger turns and takes a set of files from an otherwise empty back seat. The two occupants arrive at their destination and each takes one bag from that same back seat, passenger side and driver side, leaving the back seat empty: no piled luggage.

I think you get the picture. A narrative needs smooth and logical transitions, unless the narrative demands the opposite. But even then, the transition must have a certain logic, even within the realms of surreal illogicality, a reality that has its own internal demands, often dream-like and thematic.

We are the creators of the universe we create. We determine its logic. We must have confidence in our own creative powers, and in the internal logic of the actions of our characters. We develop our instincts as we write and we learn to trust those instincts the more we write. Alas, very little work or thought was put into the movie I was watching before I broke off to write this.

As for the film transitions  themselves: (1) change of place; (2) change of speaker; (3) flashbacks; (4) dream-world; (5) change of camera angle on speakers; (6) close-ups; (7) middle distance; (8) wider panning … others are easily observable. To these, for our own written narratives, we can add (1) change of tense; (2) change of narrator; (3) change of point of view; (4) speeding up narrative; (5) slowing down narrative; (6) change of imagery / metaphor; (7) even, from time to time, a change of language, of print type, of  punctuation etc etc.

More important than anything, though, is the internal logic of the piece we are writing, be it long or short, poetry or prose. Another consideration is that of rhythm: all writing has its own rhythm and the rhythmic flow of transitions is almost as important as the magical flow of words.

Can you tell me …


Can you tell me …

why a man
walks out of his house,
and never returns?

why a woman abandons her child,
turns her back on her lover,
and looks silent at the wall?

why errant stars fall,
leaving their constellations
to wander the skies alone?

why an incoming tide
is an invasion of white water?

why each wave separates,
thrives for a little while,
then perishes on the beach,
wrapped up
in its lacy shroud of foam?

I have received several comments on these piece from various sources. So, following the lines of thought of my readers, to whom I am most grateful, here is the same poem, but with the verses re-arranged. If anyone would like to comment on the differences between the two versions, and which they prefer, I would be most interested (and grateful).

Revised Version
Can you tell me …

why an incoming tide
is an invasion of white water?…

why a woman abandons her child,
turns her back on her lover,
and looks silent at the wall?

why errant stars fall,
leaving their constellations
to wander the skies alone?

why a man
walks out of his house,
and never returns?

why each wave separates,
thrives for a little while,
then perishes on the beach,
wrapped up
in its lacy shroud of foam?


Monday Musing

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Letter to a friend

Writing takes courage. Reading out loud in public takes courage. Standing up and being counted takes courage. We grow used to it as we go along, and slowly we grow more courageous. But from time to time we all have doubts about our creative abilities and our poetic self-worth. And those first steps are very painful, especially if we ‘expose’ our inner being for public viewing. 
Writing doggerel doesn’t take courage. Standing up and reading doggerel is easy. It’s easy because it doesn’t matter. When you take your life in your hands, dip a pen into it, and squeeze red blood onto the page, then you are taking part in a courageous act, one that defines you and throws you out there, naked before the world. That takes courage. It takes courage precisely because it matters: you are creating poetry that expresses the authenticity of your being.
Poetry, well written, well thought out, brings those seemingly small existential realities home to us all, both as readers and as writers. That is why writing and reading poetry is so important, especially in this seemingly non-poetic world. It is our task, as poets, to bring back the creativity and to challenge all those who would devour our souls in the name of nihilism and nothingness.
Sometimes the smallest acts are the most courageous … but we don’t always realize that. The continuation, day to day, of those actions that keep us alive is supreme bravery. To live is to be brave, especially when we age. Old age is not for cowards.
Small steps, small acts, small journeys, a step at a time, a word at a time, a poem at a time. Be courageous in all those tiny little things: one day, you will be ready to take the plunge and to step courageously into the wide and spacious ocean of the greater unknown that surrounds us.
May stepping stones, constructed from poetry, lead you safely on.

The Beetle Crusher


The Beetle Crusher

Railway tracks:
two parallel lines
joining together
in that impossible distance:
the single line
a mathematical mystery.

 Boys crossed the tracks
walking here and there
on Sunday outings,
or cross-country runs.

Nobody ever saw it,
but they all knew it was there,
that unexpected train,
the one that crushed the beetles,
too slow to get off the rails.

 One boy swore
he heard it once,
the Beetle Crusher.

 He said it had
the cobwebbed hoot
and whistling wail
of a ghost train
entering a scary tunnel.




full stops

blossoms blur
those branch ends
beneath water

Van Gogh
red berries
on the rowan

black streaks
the crows
their wing

from what
corn field
with gold


Wednesday Workshop: Telling a Tale


Telling a Tale
Wednesday Workshop

21 February 2018

Story telling: we all tell stories. We have told stories for thousands of years. Later we learned, as intelligent human beings, how to remember our stories by writing them down. People tell stories. They also sing stories. The singer of songs. The teller of tales. But we must never forget the oral tradition.

The oral tradition is fascinating because it is not a fixed medium: it is a very flexible one. As each tale is told, repeated from mouth to mouth, so it changes, a bit at a time. Do you remember the old story of the British soldiers in the trenches of WWI? They passed their orders whispering from man to man, mouth to ear. Legend has it that the original order “Send reinforcements, we’re going to advance” was all too easily corrupted into “Send three and four pence, we’re going to a dance.”

The oral tradition may be said to corrupt its stories. Singers who claim that they always sing their songs exactly the same way have been shown, by the objectivity of tape recordings, to alter their words at different times in different performances. Ramón Menéndez Pidal, that famous Spanish medievalist, proposed the term poeta-pueblo, the people as a poet, for the oral transformation of poems, especially the ballads / romances of the romancero, that were revised and polished and improved as they circulated orally.

Several people that I have spoken to recently (or corresponded with online) have suggested that they have problems writing their stories down. They confuse the writing process, a very slow one, with the telling process, a much quicker one, and one that is amenable to rapid revision. So, a suggestion: if you are having problems writing your story, try thinking it through, plotting it in your head, not on the page. Think before you ink. And repeat constantly so that when you write, you know what you want to write.

 Using this very simple, very traditional method, stories can be told, revised, polished … and then they can be written down. It takes some practice, but practice makes perfect, and thousands of years of literary and creative history must be respected. Become a story teller once more. And when you have told your tale, multiple times if necessary, write it down.

Whatever you do, do not confuse telling a story with the critical adage “show don’t tell”. Once you have told your tale, once it is on the page, then you can rewrite, revise, restructure, layer, improve, polish, intensify or simplify to your heart’s content. Remember: you can do this on the page (long and slow) or in your head (fast and furious). Personally, I use a combination of both methods. Try the oral method: you may like it.

Keep experimenting. Remember, you must choose what is best for you. Best wishes. Keep writing. Don’t get off the bus.



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part of my life
broke off
a glacier calving
an iceberg
floating free

tongue tip
my mouth
the tooth
I cracked

I look
in the mirror
my face

I no longer
the man
I see

I fear
each sharp-
edged scar
each violent










summer walks
garden paths
footprints of flowers

green dreams
wind-lisped grass
multitudinous tongues.

bright birds
morning bells
midsummer madness.

forced feeding
a million beaks
and bellies

cloudy morning
a chill in the air
rowan berries
bright yellow

little red faces
crab apples
bending branches

winter never far
fear of frost
always upon us





I went on a French immersion course last week. The instructor asked each one of us to address the class for ten minutes in French. When my turn came, I stood up and announced that I didn’t know what to say.

The instructor then suggested I tell the class about my dreams. What do you dream of? I said that I didn’t have any dreams, I just had nightmares, not rêves but cauchemars, you know, nightmares. She asked me to describe my nightmares and I said I couldn’t. So, she repeated, describe your dreams. I don’t have any. Do you dream about your mother? Yes, I said, but I don’t call them rêves / dreams I call them night-mères / cauche-mères, sometimes couche-mères. Couche-mères, the instructor repeated the word. The look she gave me: finger-nails scraping down a chalkboard. She turned her headlights on me and I sat there, frozen in the twin beams emanating from her eyes. Yes, night-mères, I repeated, because I set myself goals, not just dreams, achievable goals, and then I have night-mères, inspired by my mother, who says I will never achieve any of my dreams, because they are not her dreams, the ones she has for me, and they are the only ones that count.

You are here to speak in French, the instructor said, and you must speak French for another five minutes. So I told the class about the seals in the Parc du Bic in Quebec. The seals are like a plague, I said, like mosquitoes, only bigger and nastier, quite vicious, in fact. So the people who made Off to keep the mosquitoes away designed a new chemical spray that would keep the seals away. Now the French for seals is phoques, and since this is mainly a problem in Quebec, at the Parc du Bic, and not elsewhere, they called their product, you guessed it, PhoqueOff. It’s quite simple to use, I said. It’s a spray, not an ointment, and you point the spray in the general direction of the seals. Then you squeeze the button and loudly say “PhoqueOff” at which point all the seals slide off their rocks with a little splash and vanish into the sea, leaving you alone on the beach.  I have tried it myself, I tell them, and I know it works so I highly recommend it to anyone who is plagued by seals.

I still don’t know why she threw me out of the class.