Happy Hours

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As the inscription on the old Roman sundial announced: Horas non numero nisi serenas / I count only the happy hours. And, of course, the sundial is right. When the skies are cloudy and the rain and snow are falling, the sundial sleeps and refrains from marking the passage of time. But when the sun prances brightly through those heavenly meadows and casts shadows across the numbers on the clock, then the sundial counts the hours, precisely because they are happy.

I try to do the same. I try to avoid the shadows that are cast across our planet and I try not to count them. Alas, like the grains of sand on the beach and the countless stars in the sky, they are innumerable, though the latter are being named, numbered, and counted, much to their chagrin.  Who wants to be called Welsh by foreigners, with all the negative connotations they associate with the epithet, when our real name is Cymraeg? And no, we don’t live in Wales, we live in Cymru, or better still, in Canada when we (e)migrate. Canada: I wonder what the real name is for this huge and wonderful land? And what about the local indigenous peoples? I can accept that they are First Nations. No problem. But who are our hosts and neighbors when they call themselves Wolastoqiyik (or Maliseet) and we call them Aboriginals (or worse)?

What’s in a name? North, South, East, West … simple, eh? How about Upstream, Downstream, Away from the River, Towards the river? Think names of the months, names of the days of the week. Now think guidance, think signposts, think culture, think separate cultures, think different ways of living, think different ways of life. Think possessive pronouns: my book, my house, my cat, my dog, my son, my daughter, my Wifi, my wife.  Or as le grand Charles de Gaulle expressed it, in Le Canard enchaîné: “Ma France, mon coup de frappe, mon Europe … mon Dieu.” Maybe we would be better off without possessive adjectives. But then …

“Taffy was a Welshman,
Taffy was a thief,
Taffy came to our house
and stole a leg of beef.”

Taffy: a generic name for the Welsh. Any male person from Wales is automatically a Taffy from the moment he opens his mouth and speaks with anything like a Welsh accent. Taffy, from the River Taff that flows through Cardiff,  aka Caer Dydd, the fort on the Dydd. There are many rivers in Wales, many regions. Men from the Isle of Mona, Llanberis, Caernarfon, Brecon, Abertawe, Aberavon, Castell Nedd, Caerfryddin, Pen-y-pont, Caer Isca, Usk, Cas Newydd, Pen-y-Bryn, Sgetti, Uplands, Trebanog, Llanelli, Llanfairpwllgwyngilldrawbwllchllantiisilioggogogoch, Cwm Parc, Trebanoc Cwmbwrla, Cwmrhyddiceirw  … Taffies one and all, even if they were born miles away from the River Taff and rarely visited Cardiff, the very name of the river and the city anathema to them.

I once had a friend, a very good friend, or so I thought, educated in Harrow, Oxford, secret member of the ultra-secretive, fabulously expensive, well-endowed and super-privileged, ultra-elite Bullingdon Club. He had a triple barreled name of course: Somerset-Trilby-Frisbee or something like that, I forget now. Whenever I arrived at a reunion or a meeting, he would greet me with a bullhorn, bullfrog chorus that reached into the far corners of the room: “Lock up the silver spoons, the Welsh have arrived.”

Humor? His laughter would rock the rafters and shake the room once more. Racism? What racism is there in mocking the Welsh when you are English? Bigotry? No man with a three part surname, an English public school background, and a list of ancestors longer than your arm could possible be a bigot.  Idiot? He was very intelligent, slightly unbalanced, and totally oblivious to any social norm or indignity, unless he was the threatened person, and watch out for vicious mousetraps if you made him the butt of your own humor and he took umbrage at the slight. Criminal? No way: the Welsh were always the criminals, for back in the legendary mists of time they had stolen a leg of beef and now they were here to steal the precious plastic spoons and knives and forks that masqueraded as silver …

… what’s really in a name? What’s in a grey day or a blue day? What’s in a cloudy day or a sunny day? What’s in our hearts when we denigrate our friends and doubly degrade our enemies and those we declare to be our enemies, sometimes on a gut feeling or a whim? Horas non numero nisi serenas … Time to look on the bright side, to walk on the sunny side of the street, to reject the shadow and live in the sunshine. Time, in fact, to turn the whole day into a succession of Happy Hours. Study the cartoon above. Now that is a portrait of someone who really enjoys a Happy Hour. And not a glass or a bottle in sight.

Residency: Thursday Thoughts


Thursday Thoughts
29 June 2017

I would not have applied for the residency at KIRA had I not have been encouraged to do so by my writing group friends and by a friendly voice on the Kingsbrae phone.

I was surprised to receive notification of my acceptance. It arrived on 2 March 2017. On 3 March 2017, I started to peruse the Kingsbrae web page and make the first drafts of poems that I would later complete on site.

The Red Room:
I was lodged in The Red Room in the KIRA Residence and I had a small desk at a window overlooking Passamaquoddy Bay. I spent a whole month looking out of that window and writing at that desk … or was it the other way round?

Community Commitments:
These were multiple, but they were always art orientated and therefore most enjoyable. They included working with school children, attending various unveilings and openings, and being present in our studios and discussing our art with visitors. On 26 June we had an exhibition in which each one of us either showed our work or produced a live performance.

Evening Salons:
Most evenings we had a literary / artistic salon in which we discussed various aspects of our art. These lasted two to three hours and some were summarized while others were video-taped. These quick-fire exchanges provided a backbone to our daily work.

There was time for local trips and we travelled, individually or in groups, to many places including Deer Island, Passamaquoddy, Campobello, St. Stephen, New River Beach, Holt’s Point, Greenlaw’s Mountain, Jarea, Minister’s Island, Ile Ste. Croix, and several other locations. The photographic records enabled us to build our creativity.

Artistic Development:
This was individual to each of us, but we all remarked on a widening of our perspectives, a new commitment to narrative and theme, and a broadening of our artistic horizons.

Returning Home:
On my return home, I turned to my everyday life in which art, in my case writing, was of secondary, not primary, importance. The need to cook, to shop, to do normal household duties suddenly conflicted, once again, with my need to be a writer.

24/7 is indeed a cliché. But for 28 days it became the pattern of my writing life. It was indeed a fertile time. I wrote some 100 poems, 25% of which will be rejected, with a possible thematic structure and three revisions already completed. Sooner or later, I will produce a book about this experience..

This type of time commitment turns us from budding /artists into the real thing. We must strive to re-create these last 28 days in what remains of our creative lives. There can be no lesser or secondary choice, if we are to be serious about our art.

The Journey:
If we wish to travel from Halifax to Vancouver by bus, we must make several decisions.
1. We cannot get off at Moncton.
2. We cannot get off at Montreal, nor at Toronto.
3. Winnipeg, Regina, and Calgary are beautiful; but we mustn’t get off the bus.
4. If we do, we will never get to Vancouver.

Art is a life-time journey: don’t get off the bus.


Truth & Lies


Truth and Lies or Verisimilitude
Wednesday Workshop
05 April 2017

Miguel de Cervantes comes at truth and lies from a slightly different angle than most of us. In Don Quixote, he writes of verisimilitude (verosimilitud in Spanish) and defines it  in this way: “Tanto la mentira es mejor cuanto más parece verdadera” — The lie is so much better when it appears to be true.

Cervantes extends verisimilitude into perspectivism when an object, for example, the shaving bowl that turns into Mambrino’s helmet, is seen from different angles to represent different things.

Thus Sancho sees a barber’s bowl while Don Quixote sees a warrior’s helmet, specifically that of Mambrino. As Cervantes demonstrates, when both aspects can be held to be true, we are no longer dealing with a direct opposition, truth (barber’s bowl) versus fiction (Mambrino’s helmet). In fact we are dealing with a new reality, that of the basin which doubles as a helmet and the helmet that doubles as a basin. The compromise, in Cervantes’s Spanish, is to invent a new word, a new world, that of the baciyelmo, the first half of which is the basin (baci-) and the second half of which is the helmet (-yelmo). This blends two appearances together to form a new fictional reality upon which the protagonists can agree.

I like to think that this is what we are all doing when we write, forming a new fictional reality to create a new world. We do this when we combine our memories and our imaginations to create new truths. Perhaps it is the fuzziness around the edges, rather than true clarity,  that allows us to penetrate the mist of meaning and come up with the new words and worlds.

For example, some men like facial hair and some men don’t.

I was invited to play an acting role in the local film co-op and the art director asked me to grow a specific type of mustache, something I had never ever done previously. I didn’t want to do it and was faced by a dictat “do it or you don’t get the role”. The AD was a good friend, so I did it. I grew a mustache.

It was the worst mustache you have (n)ever seen and trust me you can be glad you didn’t see it (but you can see it on the film, except I’m not telling you the name of the film). Anyway, when the final words “It’s a wrap” were called, late one Sunday night, my beloved was waiting on the doorstep with a razor and a shaving brush. “Off with it,” she said. And I’ve never grown another whisker since.

Is this a true memory or a coloring of the facts? You’ll never know. What is true is that the art director was amazed at the refusal of many males to grow facial hair.

Spanish proverb: “Both man and bear: each more beautiful with more hair / ¡El hombre y el oso: más peludo, más hermoso!

The film in which I played the role of a domineering theater director was a New Brunswick short (15 minutes). It’s called Misdirection (and is available from the NB Film Co-op). It’s a totally amateur production and was enormous fun to make.

In retrospect, the mustache actually didn’t look too bad … but there’s a very evil glint in my eyes in a couple of scenes. The DoP was using a shoulder held camera and did some great close-ups. I was trying to avoid looking at the camera, but he was so close that I was staring down the lens a couple of times.

More on body hair: I was coaching at the Canada Games one year (once upon a time, a long time ago, in another life) and was moved to investigate the howls of merriment that were emerging late at night from one of the bathrooms in the residence we were all sharing.

I did so to discover, after hammering at the door and demanding entry, that five or so girls were devoting their attention and their razor blades to removing all the body hair of one of our male swimmers so that he could slip through the water with less friction.

It wasn’t exactly a Brazilian Wax, but it was a gazillion laughs: death by a thousand cuts. I am sure the scars slowed the swimmer down. This was a long time ago, incidentally, when the world was young.

Truth or Fiction? Verisimilitude? The closer the lie is to the truth, the more convincing it is. Ask Cervantes: he should know.

Fake News!


Fake News

At 10:00 AM today, Saturday, April 1, 2017, Donald Trump, the President of the USA, will sign an Executive Order reversing Galileo’s theory that the Earth moves round the Sun. As of 11:00 AM, thanks to the President, the Sun will once again move around the earth as, in the words of an unnamed source who wishes to remain anonymous, “it always has.”

Late last night the President tweeted:

Earth moves round sun? Fake News. Obama inspired scientist was wrong. SO SAD.

In addition, the President will be setting up two Commissions of Inquiry. The first will be ordered to investigate and establish the Flat Earth Phenomenon.

The President tweeted:

Obama and the Democrats are RWONG. VERY SAD. The Earths Flat. Any one can see that. Look out youre window. SO SAD.

An unnamed source said: “We have known this for a long time. Just waiting for the right moment to announce it. April 1 before mid-day felt good.”

In a third tweet, early this morning, the President asserted:

Just seen sun rise out of sea. Heading for Mar-a-Lago right now. Earth not moving. Have eyes. Can see.

The second Commission of Inquiry will look into the establishment of Coal-fired Space Travel.

Coal-fired space ships. An America Frst American First. Make America Great Again.

An unnamed source stated that “The President said he would put American miners back to work. And he’s a man of his word. Think how much coal it will take to send a space ship into space. Great President. He’ll Make America Great Again. Coal is so clean and so cheap. Democrats under Obama wasted so much money. So Sad.”

At the time of going to press, White House official staff were unavailable for comment.

So Sad.

Raw Poetry @ Corked


Raw Poetry @ Corked
Sunday, 15 January, 2017

Poetry readings: some poets are meant to be listened to, while others are meant to be written to. Listening to Nicole Godwin and R. W. Gray, I came up with these two very raw poems; by very raw poems, I mean written and read this afternoon at the poetry readings.

For Nicole

Water, H2O,
brings life,
brings words
from unplugged

Meurtriers et victimes.

Too much,
too often,
brings to both
a long, dark path
leading to goblins
and hobgoblins
at the garden’s foot:

madness and death.

Comment: Nicole was in Iraq and saw things that have stayed with her ever since. I highly recommend her poetry book, Warcries, from which she read today.

For Rob

My poems are drawn from my life,
not from the lives of others.

I live my words,
drawing them wriggling
through the holes
punched by others in my flesh.

so many cars
slithering in the freshet
melt of tarmac
and stilted flesh.

so many ships,
leaving port,
sailing away.

Comment: Rob’s opening words clicked with my own experiences and I joined right in. I highly recommend his book of short stories, Crisp, from which he read today.

Raw Poems: I wrote them down as they came to me. No revision. No second thoughts. As yet, no ‘oh dears’!

Structure in the Short Story


Structure in the Short Story
Wednesday Workshop
30 November 2016
Posted: 4 December 2016.

I just attended, with one of my writers’ groups, a writing workshop offered by a guest speaker. Our speaker threw out some interesting ideas on structure in general and structure in the short story in particular. The first comment he made was “Are you sure that your novel is not a short story and vice versa?” He then suggested that often beginning writers run out of steam because their novels are not really novels but are short stories that need cutting, rather than expanding.

He followed this up by suggesting, and I made no notes so I write from a memory that fails me more often than it used to, that a short story should have a structure that runs something like this:

stasis > key occurrence > end of old world (stasis broken) > beginning of new reality (the world upside down) > quest (the search for  new balance) > climax (when all the events of the crisis come together) >  the moment of truth (when the central character is faced by a decision) > the choice (the protagonist chooses) > pay-off for protagonist (order is restored and the protagonist is changed or confirmed by his choice) > pay-off for readers (who see that change and are themselves changed by looking at the same old world through different sight and a new knowledge or insight gained).

 One of the group members circulated his notes from the workshop and summarized the idea rather more succinctly:

The first thing I remember … in any story, the main character has to be changed at the end from what s/he was in the beginning.

The other item was the list of elements in a story: Stasis, Trigger, Quest, Surprise, Critical Choice, Climax and Resolution.

            Clearly this is a theoretical structure, but many short stories follow it or versions of it. Through this structure, our speaker suggested, there often runs a leitmotiv and this can provide a thematic unity that also holds the story together. Returning to this thematic unity and writing selectively from within it, can often produce the desired change in reader and protagonist. Equally clearly, there is no length to this structure and the resulting story may be very brief or suitably enlarged.

According to our speaker, the character of the protagonist is very important and the key aspects of the protagonist’s character must be clearly drawn, right from the start. The protagonist must also go through some sort of change as the story and the protagonist’s character both develop. Place is also important and the protagonist should be linked into a place and preferably a time. The protagonist in the short story is, after all, in a dialogue with his time and his place (his chronotopos, as Bakhtin would phrase it).

This is certainly a prescription for short story writing, one of many prescriptions, I might add. A quick search turns up another definition, this time of a five-point narrative arc offered by Mark Flanagan:

“Sometime[s] simply called “arc” or “story arc,” narrative arc refers to the chronological construction of plot in a novel or story. Typically, a narrative arc looks something like a pyramid, made up of the following components: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution.”

            Flanagan continues with a definition of each moment in the story. Exposition reveals the characters and the setting. Rising action is a complication that hinders the protagonist. Climax is the point of highest stress or tension. Falling action is a releasing of the pressure and the resolution ties up all the loose ends. (Taken from this site)


Lope de Vega, the Seventeenth-century Spanish playwright, suggested a simplified three-part structure: situation > complication > unfolding / dénouement. Of course, the complications may be multiple, resulting in an action that runs situation > complication > further complications > complicating the complications > even more complications > even more complicated complications > and then the final unraveling of the ‘by now very twisted’ plot. An even simpler two-part definition, also from Spain’s Seventeenth-century, offers us the dual structure of a ‘world in disorder’ > ‘a world in order’ — how the characters progress from disorder to order is up to you as a writer.

Of course, the author may decide NOT to tie up all the loose ends and re-order the world to perfection. When this happens, we may have a dystopia: the disaster continues; or we may have an open ending that prompts the reader to wonder what might happen or what might have happened. As for ‘beginning at the beginning,’ there are also stories that begin in the middle (in media res) and then go backwards in time before going forwards again. This raises the awkward question: how short is a short story? I won’t attempt to answer that one here.

Whether you describe or prescribe, there are many possibilities in the world of short story telling and it is always the story that counts. If it is good, then perceived structural flaws that go against these prescriptive methods may well become a prescriptive structure for another future writer. Interior monologue and dream, for example, linked thematically but not necessarily linked in time and space, may well distort or destroy yet another structural format, that of the three classic unities of time, place, and action. these, incidentally, are expanded into four by the great Spanish playwrights (among others, I am sure) who add unity of theme to the other three.

Robin Grindstaff, in an online article entitled “Narrative Arc: what the heck is it?”, available at


suggests yet another simplification and reshaping, of the narrative arc idea.

“Think of narrative arc as a bell curve. It starts at a point on the lower left hand side of a graph, rises in a curve to a peak, and then drops back down again. The standard narrative arc is often referred to in terms of the three-act play: a beginning, a middle, and an end.”

            This is not unlike the structure outlined by Lope de Vega, except for the fact that ‘middle’ is a rather inadequate term for the multiple complications outlined in the Lope de Vega model. This statement may be a little unfair as Robin Grindstaff goes on to outline the complications that may occur in the second act in the following fashion:

“In act two, the main character must try to overcome the conflict presented by the inciting event. The character wants something, has a goal in mind. The conflict and tension of the story rise, and obstacles are thrown in the path of the character to prevent her from achieving her goal. The character faces these obstacles on her way to overcoming the conflict. The obstacles get bigger, more difficult, and the character may be on the verge of defeat or surrender. At this point, the character must make a critical decision or a moral choice that changes the direction of the story.”

            Clearly the ‘obstacles that are thrown’ compare favorably with Lope’s consistent throwing of obstacles and ‘middle’ therefore becomes a euphemism for ‘complications.’ Act three allows for the climax and resolution of the story and this includes character change or ‘death in defeat’ and tragedy. I recommend this article very strongly, as it goes way beyond the outline I have offered thus far and clarifies many features of the narrative arc.

In fact, Grindstaff then references Nigel Watts, Write a Novel and Get It Published, and outlines an eight-point narrative arc that runs

stasis > trigger > quest > surprise > critical choice > climax > reversal > resolution.

 This runs a close parallel to the circulated list (quoted earlier) of seven elements:

 Stasis > Trigger > Quest > Surprise > Critical Choice > Climax > Resolution.

 The main difference being the insertion of a reversal between the climax and the resolution.

So, we have now established an narrative arc, or a pyramid, with 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 or 8 steps included within it. This is all very prescriptive: do it and you will succeed. My greatest fear then becomes the gate-keepers, those anonymous figures who sit on shadowy selection committees, place ticks in appropriate boxes, and judge the quality of writing by consensus in committee. I can hear them now: “#7 is missing. There’s no reversal. Reject!” “I don’t like #5. The choice isn’t critical enough. Reject!”

As writers, we must remember that all these arcs and numbers are just theories. The most important thing is the command ‘Take up thy pen and write’! All the theory in the world does not produce a good short story or a good novel. In fact, the opposite may be true: too many rules may stifle our narratives at birth or choke them to death My advice: know your theories, then smash them into little pieces and create the new structures, the new formats, the next new great piece of writing that will lead you, as a writer, to boldly go where no writer has gone before.

 Blessings, happy writing, and follow your creative instincts.

Planners, Pantsters, and Thinksters: Wednesday Workshop


Planners, Pantsters, and Thinksters
Wednesday Workshop
9 November 2016

Two new writers (John King and Amy … ) have joined our writers’ group (Chuck Bowie, Kevin Stephens, John Sutherland, and Roger Moore) and now we are six (with apologies to Winnie the Pooh). In addition, we have a virtual member (Allan Hudson) and a potential member (Victor Hendricken). Amy has joined on a first name basis. Alas, there were only four of us last night: Amy, John K, Kevin and Roger; Chuck and John S were both indisposed. We wish them good health.

This leads me to the question: what is the best way to integrate new members into an already established group of writers? I have no answer. Last night’s activities seemed quite successful.  First we introduced ourselves, first names only (oh dear!) and then we invited Amy to tell us about her writing. What an adventure. She has completed one novel, 110,000 words, and has two more planned in the series. She is questioning her opening chapter: is it the right one or should she begin after chapter three? Without having read the work, I personally find it difficult to give advice.

We explored some of the themes Amy presented to us and discussed a series of images that recurred and seemed to link the novel together. The idea of iterative thematic imagery serving as a leitmotiv came forward and we analyzed how repeated images can tie a novel (or a poem, or a short story) together. We spent some time on triggers that motivate actions and reactions from the characters. What is the trigger or the hook that draws the readers in, makes them look to the future, and persuades them to want to continue finding out more about the characters?

We also discussed Kevin’s favorite topic: planners and pantsters. Kevin is a planner who works everything out in advance. His charts, photos, character guides, outlines, and plans are an exemplary work of art in themselves and are highly admired by the group members. Many writers are pantsters; that means to say they pick up their pens or sit by their key-boards and write by instinct and fly by the seat of the pants. I find myself in between these two extremes, for, like Fray Luis de León and Juan de Valdés long before me, I think most of my writing out and keep it in my head until it comes time to put it down on the page. Perhaps this makes me a thinkster; I would like to think it did.

We also discussed the importance of The First Five Pages (Noah Lukeman’s book, sub-titled: a writer’s guide to staying out of the rejection pile). We invited Amy to send us her first five pages for an online critique. Our next step will be to look at the first five pages of the chapter with which she is proposing to start. It was an exciting conversation. I hope it was not a scary one for Amy’s first time out.

John K has been to one of our previous meetings, plus we had a long series of discussions with him at the WFNB meetings last weekend in Shediac. He and I helped close the hotel bar in Shediac at 1:30 am, so we are very proud of our efforts there. He presented us with the outline of a ‘tale’ that he is developing. Good man: he writes with a pen in a notebook, jotting down his ideas as they come to him and elaborating them in pen and ink, just as I do. Kevin and Amy had their tablets and their computers while John K and I had our pens and notebooks.

Without going into the details of his story and giving anything away, he walked us through the tale as he has it at present. he has great ideas, but at present is in search of a format in which to present his ‘tale’. Is it a short story? Too long and too many episodes. A novella? Could be. A full length novel? We didn’t see why not, and more and more potential episodes suggested themselves as we went along. In many ways it sounded like a film or a televisions series and John K’s active photographic mind, he has done courses in film and script writing, painted an engaging series of linked pictures, all of them with great potential. We are hoping that John K will send us an outline sketch, maybe even a storyboard,  of what he is planning. Perhaps we should also ask Amy for a chapter plan, or would that be too ambitious?

As for Kevin and I, we joined in the conversation, presented commentaries and ideas, outlined some of our own plans and directions, and had a thoroughly enjoyable time. Kevin’s book DiAngelo will be released on 22 February 2017. He is at the final editing stage right now and is busy, busy, busy with the final version of the text. We are all excited for him and are pushing him to keep at it and get the first novel of his planned five novel series out, and up, and running.   He is also planning a series of pre-release advertisements scenarios, all of which are sure to catch the eye of potential readers.

And that may well be the topic for another day: how do we market our books and what is the best way to attract readers?