Monday, July 20, 2015

The Creativity Habit

The creative impulse has beat on a regular basis throughout my life, more notably during my adult life than during my childhood when the imagination is supposedly a hotbed of bubbling creative activity.  By my own account I had more deep thoughts than creative impulses and with the ideas that I did have, execution might have been an issue.  Ultimately, I discovered that words or image were more of my medium than anything else and the idea of making anything other than a house or what every a Lego kit was meant to build brought on a great deal of anxiety.

Still the creative impulses occurred often enough to get a few poems published over the course of the years that have passed and I have come up with some good ideas for stories to develop.  The photography that has been a passion ever since I was 12 has been a productive activity and an opportunity to express my vision or perspective.  There were stretches of my life when I was able to shoot 3-4 hours a day, a rate that still strongly informs the way I work with the camera despite not spending as much time with the craft as I once did.

At the same time there was a lot of story ideas that welled up and showed promise but never took the full form that they needed to develop to their full potential.  Summers would be set aside to finish a project and projects would indeed get done but there was not much response for all the effort I made to get them "out there."  There were plays, novels, short stories, screenplays and more than all had potential to come together and for the few occasions where something got finished, there was the lingering feeling that there was something missing and the response when I tried to get feedback was an indicator that something was missing as well.

The writing was laborious as I would stare at a sentence and move it around and try to fix the writing on that micro level without getting very far with other questions that were facing me.  The hard drive didn't exactly fill but there were plenty of files that grew in size and word count without promising to amount to much.

At the age of 48, married and with an energetic, very boyish 3 year old taking a big part of my time and life there was an acknowledgement that the passion to write was still there but that it wasn't going to happen they way I had once imagined.

But it had to happen.

After psyching myself up for a few months with books like Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott, the blessed discovery of Brenda Ueland's If You Want To Write and a steady diet of novelists who have emerged as my favorites, my mind blowers and the deft masters to look up to - not to mention a steady diet of children's books about fire stations with maddeningly zero variety from the go put out a fire and put out another one plot lines that they all stick to - I had to get back at it.

Rather than quitting the job with the promise to pound something out by the end of winter or blocking off 6 to 36 hours of my weekend to stare at the computer monitor while my urge to defrost the refrigerator ticked upward, I had to be reasonable and start with forming a habit and proving to myself that I indeed had the discipline to do something other than stare at my computer with the hope that the most sterling sentences this side of Carol Shields were suddenly pouring off my forehead with the sweat.  I had to manage enough with a little portion of the day to see if I could make progress.  Here is what I built my routine around:

1. Set a reasonable goal - To form the habit, you have something that you can achieve consistently. I knew that I was not going to come up with the 3-4 hours I was once able to find for my photography so I started out with 1000 words a day regardless of what I'd written the day before.  Most nights, I manage to get it done in 30 to 45 minutes.

2. Make yourself accountable - The accountability simply creates a small network of people who are checking in on your progress and perhaps even getting on your back if you drop the routine.  I would cryptically post my word count at the end of each day on Facebook and after a few days people were asking, "What's with the numbers?" After I explained I struck a bit of curiosity on their part and even came up with a few allies.  One friend, a fellow writer, has liked each update over the last few months.  I haven't had anyone ask about missed days yet, which was what I was hoping for, but I haven't missed too many days in a row at any one stretch.

3. Never censor and edit later... much later - At this stage the goal is flow.  There has probably been a lot of dross in there but there are a few nuggets every couple of days that with a bit of a polish and a different perspective in a few months time might amount to something a little tighter or stronger.  My goal has been just to get my fingers moving and keep them moving even though I know it is crap.  It is a matter of getting through that crap or getting it out of my system to unearth things that are beneath those layers.  One example tonight from a description of air travel:

He either mastered the calm of that netherworld state of air travel and whatever happens to you when all you stare at for hours are the stars, the expanse of the Pacific or the ocean of cloud that separates you from your bearings with a fractal collage of mists and molecules of water and the new toxins that suspended in it -  the arbitrary appearance of the texture and sculpture of each bit of cloud a mystery in its formation and for that everything and nothing to contemplate as the data on the flight tells the fatalists that they would assuredly freeze to death at this altitude before there was any chance of them making impact with the "real" world below.

In a few months, when I go back look at this from a different perspective and with a better sense of what the whole thing is supposed to be, I'll elevate the vocabulary a little bit and make this a little clearer or tighter.  If I tried to do that tonight, I may have been hung up on an earlier sentence that I was trying to perfect rather than blasting through it and coming up with a passage that was no where in my thoughts earlier in the day.

As far as not censoring yourself, it has helped me come up with characters or situations that are rather unsavoury.  I've probably fallen victim to having too many nice protagonists without the flaws that make them real.  Pour your nastiness into your story and then shrug and say, "He (she) was the SOB of the story.  The story needed it.  I don't know anyone like that!"

4. Lay the stone before you carve it - The other thing about that commitment to getting the words out of yourself is that it ultimately moves you toward a process that is in keeping with the plastic arts. A stone carver works and chipping away the inessential to release their vision from their medium. With writing, I long acted as if a first draft had to have a begin, middle and end in that order.  I have probably written similar scenes or described the same setting a few times over.  It may feel redundant but there is a chance that if you keep going back to it you are visiting a setting or scene that is vital to your story and the more versions you have of it the more options you will have when it comes to putting things together.  I briefly tried putting things in a certain order but after a week or ten days I abandoned that in favour of filling one file for the sake of having everything in one place.  I may have a massive challenge putting things in an order I like but filmmakers are rarely compelled to shoot the film in the order they wish us to see it.  Give yourself plenty to chip away at.

5. Bring on the input - I do not mean to ask for people to peer over your shoulder and clear their throat constantly but simply to be aware of things that are sparking your imagination.  Whether it is stuff you are reading, experiences out of your daily routine or something else entirely file it and find a way to work it into what you are writing.  Be a bit more attuned to those things and if you need to jot down a note for something to work into your writing when you sit down good.  My worst habit for the longest time was to note something mentally and go, "I'll write that later," and get to it absolutely never.  On one occasion, the words "the telepathy of small towns" from a novel prompted me on a long passage about foreigners some how communicating wordlessly and knowing what one another are thinking in an immigration line in a Japanese airport.  On another occasion a conversation with a friend at work inspired a lot of depth to one of the characters that I had not given much thought to.

The interesting thing with this aspect of the habit is that it has not been focused exclusively on the writing. Ideas and questions emerge out of interactions at work and give me something to chew over and give a bit more heft to as conversations unfold and ideas get worked through that previously may not have been given more than passing consideration. 

6. Roll with it - Not every night is going to be brilliant.  Some nights I drag myself to that 1000th word and feel that I could hit the delete button and not lose anything of value. There are others where I channel my state of mind and whatever happened to me that day or came together in my head and it clicks.  There are some nights when the rut cannot be escaped and I simply put the headphones on, crank up some music and it is more like air piano than anything.  I push along to get the words out in time with the music and it blows the gunk out and loosens me up.  There is no telling when the gold starts coming out again, but I'll meet the goal for the night and move on.  The editing will be the key.  In his Inner Game of Tennis and Inner Game of Work, Timothy Gallwey talks about your inner critic gradually getting pushed to the background to let your more intuitive or expressive sides gaining the free range to express and produce in ways that align your talents and ambitions more freely.  Muting the dialogue with your inner critic takes time and practice and the more often you roll through those fallow periods, the better the productivity becomes.

7. Repeat - When I started this process nearly five months ago I just wanted to see if I could generate 1000 words a day without it disrupting my life too much.  For the most part I've kept it up and I am at a point where I can miss a day or two without concern that the whole routine will go all to hell. Editing will be more challenging without the quantitative measures but I'll worry about that then.  Over the course of the past five months I've been able to plug away at the start or the end of the day when the lad is in bed and my wife is as well or she is winding down for the night.  In the space of that time I've written over 165000 words or 420 pages.  It is not in any shape to show anyone right now, but there is probably more quality in there and a better sense of story than there would have been if I started with a clear path to plot climax in mind and tried to string together the perfect sequence of words to achieve it.

The creative process is rarely going to be pristine and ordered and it is freeing to take an approach that allows you to be active in the pursuit rather than passive and hopeful that it will come out fully formed as if it were dictated to you whole.  As you work toward completing that work there is greater chance that - if you are open and receptive to the experiences you had or are having - you will generate momentum and feel that the manuscript and the process are gelling in a way that will become coherent meaningful and reflective the voice that you are trying to write in.

To be continued...

and edited.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Does Dalhousie Graduate Professionals or Merely High-Income Earners?

The misogynous Facebook group of Dalhousie University dental students has remained seemingly unresolved as the 2014-15 academic year winds to its conclusion.  At this point the students who were suspended from participating in their clinic practice have been reinstated and the whistleblower who revealed the group remains suspended.  Since the Facebook group was revealed and the students were suspended in December, it has seemed that the students have been treated with their well-being of the primary concern, taking priority over the reputation of the entire class, the university and perhaps the dental profession as well.

As the end of the school year approaches and the students proceed to complete their clinical work and lectures, the impression is left that Dalhousie University administration has been focused on allowing the members of the Class of DDS 2015 Gentleman every opportunity to ensure they retain their right to earn the commensurate income their degree would defer them rather than upholding the standards and the Code of Ethics that professionals ought to live up to.  Perhaps there has been something constructive that came of Dalhousie's application of restorative justice in dealing with these men.  The use of restorative justice may be an appropriate option to a swifter, more retributive response such as that by Oklahoma University President David Boren this week when dealing with the racist leaders of the campus fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon.

My feeling though is that the retributive justice option may been employed to circle the wagons and ensure that the Gentlemen have the opportunity to hold onto the income earning potential they hold so dear, attribute their behaviour to a dose of mob mentality and others rather than taking or bearing any true responsibility for their actions.  One may accuse me of wanted a more public response to this out of my own sense of retribution.  However, the whistleblower's disproportionate time in the spotlight during this affair and the conditions with which he is required to comply certain suggest that an old boy's club is calling the shots and protecting the Facebook group and perhaps the university faculty as well rather than the profession that these young men aspire to belong to.  Given the lack of standards that these young men seem capable of rising to, Dalhousie University's actions indicate a lack of understanding that they are responsible for training these students to join a profession rather than merely get a job.

All of the stick-handling that has been done since the Dalhousie University scandal began in December seems to have been aimed at ensuring that as many of the students as possible manage to graduate and perhaps, not coincidentally, narrow the university's mandate to getting its students into the workforce as efficiently as possible.  The options to this are to graduate humane, sensitive, civil professionals who demonstrate compassion for others that goes well beyond complying with the code of conduct or code of ethics of the professional college or association that will confer upon them their right to practice as dentists.  Dalhousie University ought to aspire to do more than merely train its students to -- as Dal alum Hugh MacLennan stated in his 1960 essay, "The Classical Tradition and Education" -- "qualify for the higher income brackets."  In this sense, the leadership at Dalhousie University has best succeeded in avoiding the task of setting a standard that they would want their graduates to maintain when they enter this profession.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Bravery Reconsidered: A Reflection on My Teaching Career

I talk about the topic of bravery reluctantly, in part because of the number of times people suggested that I was brave to teach in the Arctic for two years. The first handful of reader of this blog, those who stumble upon it through my posting of it on Facebook or Twitter will know more about my experience teaching in the Arctic and a few of them also have read my memoir of that time as well. During those two years I was regularly complimented for my apparently bravery in going there and it was something I regularly shrugged off, concluding that it was inappropriate to be considered brave for facing someone else's fears.  Alternatively, it is inaccurate to be described as brave when doing something you had the equipment or clothing to do.

In many instances there were people who suggested that it was brave to merely brave the elements of the Arctic. However, the extreme weather gear that I had separated me from those elements quite easily and I confidently and comfortably made my walk to school in -40 temperatures or colder.  As the daylight disappeared for a few months during the depths of winter, it was gradual. The darkness amounted to a prolonged period of daylight for a few hours a day without the bright sun appearing over the horizon and making itself known for a few months. Thanks to the gradual transition to that darkness the reaction to it was akin to a boiled frog - I essentially wasn't aware of what was happening and consequently did not react in fight or flight manner.  I simply got up each day and worked through the physiological responses to the darkness because I did not know any better.

Despite the physical challenges from the climate and locale, the professional challenges that I faced in the classroom and the privations that came with not having a convenience store or a working bathroom nearby, none of these made me particularly brave. I have been reluctant to declare myself brave for any of those things.  "Brave" is entirely the wrong word if we are going to talk about someone going 3-4 months without a toilet or 10 months without a television, especially when one had the choice to do otherwise.

There were threats during the time that I was in the community and the classroom there and I pondered them and weighed there significance as well as I could and in those cases, determined, undaunted or foolish might be better terms than brave.

My bravest moment may have been the one when I exposed my weaknesses or my vulnerability to my students.  There was a moment in the classroom when I set aside all notions of authority in the classroom and stopped pretending that the curriculum that I was teaching them was somehow appropriate to their needs.  Instead of trudging along through the curriculum confident that the Ministry of Education for the province of Quebec dictated to be as appropriate for my kids as it was for kids in Montreal, I stopped and asked the kids, "What do you want me to teach you?" - an admission that my charade as the authority who knew either a) exactly what they needed to learn or b) enough about education to come up with the ideal match for their lives and traditions without their input.  I gave them input into what had to happen in their classroom and they promptly and seamlessly transitioned in a matter of seconds from "empty vessel" or "blank slate" to partner in defining what they needed and made profound contributions as soon as given the opportunity.

I did not know what the outcome would have been when I asked that question or disclosed that I did not have all the answers, but the consequences were remarkable and beautiful.  And they resulted from me simply disclosing what I was not capable of figuring out for myself.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Precision and Satire

The discussion of free speech that has opened up since the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris has not given much airing to the notion of responsibility when exercising free speech.  The most biting and effective satire has been thought-provoking and informed or guided by intentionality. With the cartoons in the Charlie Hebdo and perhaps the cartoons in a Danish publication in 2006 there may have been provocation, but not of thought.

The finest satire, even that targeted at religion, is informed by insights and a desire to make useful, constructive observations that are intended to amuse, provoke and critique.  Sacred cows are not spared and should not be, but the problem with the cartoons is that they seem to exercise the desire and opportunity to offend rather than to give people something to talk about.

Apart from the known and established umbrage that Muslims take upon the attempt to illustrate the prophet Muhammed the cartoonists offer no insights or demonstrate the knowledge required to offer the depth and precision of satire that comes from a perspective of communicating criticism.  In the cases of the cartoons that have been at the center of the controversy there is little constructive criticism.  Instead, the cartoons - apart from giving a poke in the eye to Muslims - demonstrate little insight about the Muslim faith or its foibles.  There is just the type of blatant stereotyping that we have collectively opposed for other groups.

The best satire is informed and while there may be a temptation among partisans to deny the truth which is often at its heart, it is still going to tap into a fountain of truth that will be begrudgingly acknowledged.  If the Muslim faith is going to be satirized as effectively as other faiths, ideologies or obsessions that it needs to be founded on a body of knowledge.  For all the navel-gazing on the topic of free speech that has emerged since the attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, there ought to be a consideration of what is being discussed, who is discussing it, whether or not they have any skin in the game and if they know what they are actually talking about.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Revising Lord Acton: Power Metastasizes

Lord Acton is best known for the quotation, "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely," but I would humbly like to offer a revision.  In cases where institutions fail to serve the communities they are intended to serve and wittingly or unwittingly tend to serve the special interests of a faction or clique of a community, it seems more and more likely that power tends to metastasize. 

Governments are increasingly overwhelmed by the range of interests and needs that they are asked to balance off against on another or give due consideration during their decision-making processes. That, along with the technological changes that have accumulated over the course of time have given a wide variety of stakeholders the means to offer an alternative to governments or even oppose them and other long-established institutions.  Those established institutions that we have long taken for granted but are growing rickety in the absence of substantial reforms are no longer the robust responsive institutions we relied on - if they ever were those vanguards of justice.


The fact is that many of those institutions have been flawed and history has recounted may cases where those institutions have squandered their legitimacy in ways the Lord Acton so aptly summed up.  The ideal of those institutions was that they would be places where the rights and needs of all were taken into account and given their due respect.  The failures of those institutions to provide that service to their constituents and form a community that they served fairly has motivated more and more groups to act in a manner that has either provided an alternative means of empowering and serving groups or individual or advocate in some way, whether peacefully or not, for the sake of the group they purport to serve and protect.


Due to the shortcomings or failings of governments, justice systems, school systems, churches or other institutions that we would associate with eminent, columned buildings of beauty, purpose and high ideals, more and more individuals or groups have taken the opportunity to assert influence of their own and earn support because of the declining legitimacy of those institutions that we had so long invested trust in. Some of these new alternatives gain a certain degree of power or legitimacy from various audiences. Corporations gain more legitimacy because of the good will they foster among customers and employees. Environmental groups do the same among their supporters. Religious groups assert their own influence on the conscience of a community.  Countless other groups and subgroups and subcultures each purport to stand for their cause or have their respective missions and within each of these organizations there are groups or individuals who are abusing their power and undermining their legitimacy to divide again and again. 


Power, be it gained via wealth, knowledge, media assets, popularity, natural resources, weapons, collective rights or presence, is multiplying because so few of the groups or institutions or organizations strive to represent or consider the whole.  Therein is the metastasis that is occur much to the detriment of our society.  There are too many people and organization each striving to find their soapbox or their audience that fewer and fewer people seem willing to listen intently to all of the arguments and voices that are striving to be heard.  The flaws that power brings when it is wielded continue to multiply because too many people are striving to gain power for the sake of punishing or being retributive rather than building communities that are founded on more than one interest.


At a time when there is so much cynicism about the role and motivation of governments, the need for leaders who show a command of the complexity of our societies and the diversity of opinions and interests and strengths that seem to be multiplying and spreading rather than unifying into a coherence that can contribute to a vibrancy, resilience and responsiveness that an inclusive community can be capable of.  When we see governments ignoring the realities associated with climate change and there are monthly recurrences of police activities that raise questions about their ability or willingness to serve the entire community within their jurisdiction, there is ample reason to doubt the intentions of our elected officials, but investing the patience and effort required to reform these older institutions will be more successful than efforts to counter these flaws with alternative organizations and structures that may ultimately lack the scope of mission or vision that is required to unite people and build or rebuild communities.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Want Progress on Race in the States? Look at Cop Salaries

As events this year in Ferguson, Missouri and in New York City have intensified the harsh glare on race relations in the United States, one question that has not been discussed has been the salaries paid to American police officers or the budgets that American police departments have. The gap between salaries paid to police officers in Canada and the United States is stark with Canadian police officers earning an average of $19,000 dollars more annually.

The wage situation is worse if you looked at the situation from one city to the next throughout the States.  The poaching of Detroit police officers that has occurred since that city went into bankruptcy illustrates this gap as well and according to a recent report by NBC News, the salaries are barely above Canadian minimum wage rates for many of the municipalities comprising metropolitan St. Louis.  Ferguson is in the middle of the pack in the St. Louise area with an average hourly pay of about $22 an hour.

The majority of police officers are getting paid in a range that can put them on a level with administrative assistants, or retail store managers.  It is not reasonable to expect the expertise and range of skills required to effectively handle and defuse the challenges of police work from someone earning the same salary as a manager at a Denny's.  Evidence from Ferguson and from the death of Eric Garner in New York City, suggest that some police officers cannot handle their work any better than the likes of George Zimmerman, who was involved in the death of Trayvon Martin while volunteering with a neighborhood watch program in a gated community in Florida.

The gap between professional police officers - if that is what they can be called when they are making $11.18 an hour - and a volunteer such as Zimmerman, who has been described by many sources as a racist, seems negligible but the institutions who employ and underpay these officers ought to be scrutinized. Police work is becoming increasingly complex and given the budgetary stresses facing police departments such as Detroit's it is highly unlikely that they are able to develop the range of new initiatives to respond effectively to this increased complexity.  In Canada there is a wide range of innovative community policing initiatives that are being introduced, each of which are requiring new skill sets and aptitudes that are far removed from the typical skills of a beat cop.  There may be similar efforts in the United States, but there is every chance that appropriate compensation is an obstacle to introducing new initiatives that would move American policing toward more cooperative, community-oriented models.

This is not to suggest that the race problems in the United States is new or recent.  New approaches to policing that are more community-oriented, or require skill sets other than the old west quickdraw are at an increased premium and at this point it seems that police departments in the United States may be too constrained by a variety of budgetary challenges to break ground on new initiatives and approaches to policing that can improve relationships and cooperations between police departments and the communities they serve.

American policing faces many obstacles - the Second Amendment and the racial issues getting the most type space of late - but the most insurmountable may be the lack of financial resources or perhaps the lack of will to fully support police departments in the United States in innovating approaches to policing that would surmount the barriers that currently exist between police departments and the communities that they serve.

Paying police officers appropriately for the challenging work that they do on a daily basis, to not only protect the public but also to ensure that people have the opportunity to be innocent until proven guilty and to uphold the rights of all citizens, including those they are apprehending.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

GSA's in Alberta and the Old "Legislation of Morality" Argument

Last weekend I lunched with a circle of older friends who gather regularly to, as we put it, solve the world's problems regale each other with accounts of the week that passed. On the occasion of our most recent gathering one of the more conservative of the group posed the question about what the big deal was with the Alberta government's efforts at splitting the difference with its legislation "addressing" the establishment of Gay-Straight Alliances (GSA's) in schools throughout the province.
This older, conservative-minded gentle wondered what the big deal was all about and why there was even a need for such legislation, or a more favourably-worded bill being required or preferred and why the cause of Gay-Straight Alliances was one that was worthy of such public opposition.  In stating his opinions about the perceived inutility of the GSA's, he skated ever so closely to the "you can't legislate morality" argument which is a perilously lazy attempt to feign neutrality on GSA's and the matter of school bullying, which many politicians indicate a desire to reduce or - to provide a less effective, more retributive response - penalize.

The kids who favour and wish to form the GSA's have a conscious sense of what community building can do to student life in their schools. By recognizing and accepting homosexuality in the manner that the GSA's intend to do, they enhance the safety of their school for all of the students.  By creating a degree of openness about the topic, they in turn erode the power of parents or students who feel that sexual orientation ought to either be: 1) a matter that ought to be kept private if diversity is going to be acknowledged at all or 2) compliant with their perceived "norms" will a stern response against anyone who expresses a variation on that hetero norm.  Such narrow attitudes result in students feeling entitled to express their opinion, whether physically or verbally through bullying and those students acquire the power to bully because of a narrow determination of "normal."  The presence of GSA's is a step toward broadening the definition of normal or rendering it moot and taking that away the soapbox from which bullies feel they can rail against difference.

My elderly friend still felt there was no need for this to be a matter for government to legislate.  The argument he gave was that if a heterosexual and a homosexual chose to be friends, let them.  In that, is a clear desire to turn a blind eye to the realities of school life. It would be very difficult for friends to stick together in the face of the bullying that one would get for the sake of being different. We can all recall the scenarios in school where one kid in class -- be it the pasty skinned one, the heavy one, the slow one, the poor one, the more heavily acned one or anyone else who was deemed to be a member of that exclusive phylum of target -- got ridiculed and bullied. The last thing that one kid was able and willing to do was stand up for or stand by that kid.  It would take a great deal of will to bear that collateral bullying.  It is tempting to look back on our school years and say that that act of bravery would or could have been committed if it were required, but it was and is. Regularly. The majority of kids would want to be on the right side of those relationships and they simply need the assurance that they are not going to be the only ones to stand up and that they in turn will be safe when they stand for their principles.

If the legislation, the right legislation, regarding the formation of Gay-Straight Alliances ensures that power does not get created among groups of people who choose to be intolerant and instead gives students the opportunities to contribute to forming environments where adolescent men and women have the opportunity to fully recognize and develop their identities at the same pace, regardless of their sexual orientation, then the government would not be merely legislating morality, but taking a long-term, big picture view on the physical, social, sexual and mental health of the next generation of Albertans. Even the most cursory of cost-benefit analyses would prove that worthwhile.