Category Archives: Writing

Bird by Bird

This puzzle is called Avian Friends but I ordered it because it reminded me so much of the title of Anne Lamott’s famous book about the craft of writing Bird by Bird first published in 1994. The title of the book comes from a piece in Lamott’s book that reads…….

Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table, close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’”

Anne’s father’s advice rings true for writing projects but also for almost any task that seems overwhelming. You have to start and take one step at a time and eventually the task will get done. That was certainly how I felt when I wrote my novel and how I feel when I am preparing to learn all the material for an exhibit at the art gallery or when I have to clean my whole house. But if I go ‘bird by bird’ it gets done.

Another thing I liked about this puzzle was the way the birds were pretty easy to put together they were so bright and unique in their colour and design but it was the pieces that connected them that took so long to figure out.

And isn’t that true? Figuring out how to bring together diverse people at work or in a family or figuring out how to take the diverse aspects of your life and bring them together in a way that is meaningful and manageable is always a challenge.

I loved the puzzle Avian Friends. But I would have called it Bird by Bird or Coming Together.

Other posts……….

A Different Kind of Puzzling

The Missing Piece

Hugo Bartel’s Puzzles

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Filed under Books, Nature, Writing

Is The Term Black Sheep Racist?

I am working on a new novel about a girl growing up on a farm in the 1930s who is impulsive, incorrigible and adventuresome. These traits often get her into trouble and lead to her older sister at one point calling her the black sheep of the family. I spun out the metaphor in a number of ways in ensuing chapters but one day when I was reading over what I’d already written it occurred to me that maybe the term black sheep might be considered racist by some.

So I checked it out and found……. a 2021 Readers Digest article that called out the term black sheep as racist. It had a quote from clinical psychologist Dr. Dee Watts -Jones. “Everyday language reminds African Americans in matter-of-fact ways that our colour is related to extortion (blackmail), disrepute (black mark), rejection (blackball), banishment (blacklist), impurity (not the driven snow), illicitness (black market), and death. Casting aspersions on black or darkness while praising white or light isn’t universal, and regardless of the intentions of the user of these expressions, such usage colludes with racism.”

Next I read an article by two Irish university professors Sharon and Frank Houghton published in the Journal of the Medical Library Association which begins with this statement, “This commentary addresses the widespread use of racist language in discussions concerning predatory publishing. Examples include terminology such as blacklists, whitelists, and black sheep. The use of such terms does not merely reflect a racist culture, but also serves to legitimize and perpetuate it.”

I found many other articles that confirmed my suspicion that it would be best not to use the term black sheep in my novel. It took me a couple of days to come up with an alternate description that I could spin out metaphorically but I did.

You will have to hope my novel gets published so you can find out what I used instead of black sheep.

Other posts………..

How I Became Aware of Racism

Cancel Culture

The Fist- Determined or Aggressive?


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In The Footsteps of Eleanor Roosevelt

I have been researching the life of Eleanor Roosevelt for a new middle-grade novel I am writing set in the 1930s. Although Eleanor didn’t live in an era of computers and the internet she might be considered a forerunner of today’s bloggers. In a way, those of us who blog online daily are following in Eleanor’s pioneering footsteps.

When famed photographer Yousuf Karsh took Eleanor Roosevelt’s picture in 1944 he had her pose with a pencil in hand to indicate that in addition to the many other roles she played in life she was also a writer.

From December of 1935 until September of 1962 Eleanor wrote a syndicated column called My Day in which she chronicled her daily life. Her articles were published six days a week and appeared in some ninety different newspapers.

Although she began in 1935 by writing about the activities of her family and the interesting people she met, later her daily entries also offered her ideas about issues like prohibition and the growing popularity of televisions. She didn’t shy away from expressing her opinions about America’s entry into World War II, the development of the atomic bomb, the Cold War, American Civil Rights, anti-Semitism and space travel.

Eleanor continued writing her column after she and her husband Franklin Roosevelt left the White House, after the former President died, and during the time Eleanor served as the United States ambassador to the United Nations. She only stopped writing her daily reflections a couple of months before her death.

I am in the process of reading all of the columns published in September and October of 1936 which is the time period pertinent to my manuscript.

Eleanor’s topics during those two months range from taking one of her children to the dentist to have their wisdom teeth extracted to her observations about the futility and carnage of the civil war raging in Spain.

One day she may eloquently defend the need to encourage young people to be critical thinkers and a few days later describe how she had to heat water in a frying pan on a family camping trip because she’d forgotten the kettle.

She may offer a serious and critical review of the latest book she is reading in an entry, and then talk about her trepidation watching her young granddaughter riding a rather large horse.

Eleanor Roosevelt at work at her typewriter

One thing I noted in the September 1936 columns was Mrs Roosevelt’s difficulties trying to make sure her typewriter came with her wherever she went so she could write her daily columns. She probably would have appreciated today’s laptop computers.

Long before daily blogs became popular Eleanor Roosevelt was writing a daily blog of sorts for the newspaper.

Eleanor kept up her ritual of a daily entry for nearly thirty years.

I’ve been writing my blog What Next for just over a decade now. I wonder if I will be able to match Mrs Roosevelt’s record.

Other posts……….

Writing Is the Way I Think and Remember

The Joy of FreeLancing

Pandemic Pastimes


Filed under History, Writing

Giving Young Writers An Audience

CTV featured a story in February about an eight year old boy from Boese Idaho who wrote and illustrated a book and then snuck it onto the shelves in his local library. The librarian found it, catalogued it and now there is a waiting list of over a hundred people who want to read the book. The young author is thrilled his book has such a large audience.

The local newspaper did a feature story on a student publishing project the staff members developed at a former school where I taught

The story reminded me of a project we had at Elmdale School in Steinbach during the 1970s when I was a teacher there. We set up a publishing house right in our school to provide children with professional looking books they had written themselves.

We had ten volunteer parents who typed the children’s stories, with a few lines of text on each page. Then the children illustrated their pages. The volunteers sewed the pages together and made hard covers for them with cardboard and wallpaper and fabric. In one year they helped children in the school publish some 500 books. Each book had a dedication page and an about the author page as well.

The year ended with a full day Young Author’s Conference where children had a chance to read their stories to different groups of students and adults and to listen to authors, journalists and musicians share writing secrets and tips for success.

At the high schools where I taught in Hong Kong and Canada I started school newspapers to showcase my students’ work

From 2005 to 2011 when I taught high school English classes I published a school newspaper. My teenage students were excited that their writing would be shared with the whole student body.

Having their work published in some form and then shared with an audience is a real reward for kids no matter their age. It can affirm them as writers and inspire them to continue with their creative work.

Other posts……..

How Did You Become A Writer?

Helping Children Become Writers

Ten Lessons From a Writing Life

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Filed under Education, Writing

The Joy of FreeLancing

Did you know it’s FreeLance Writer’s Week? Begun in 2013 it’s a week to recognize the work that freelance writers do. I have been a freelance writer since 1985 when I first began my regular newspaper column in the Carillon.

One of the things I love about being a freelance writer is the opportunities it has provided for me to meet interesting people and learn about interesting things.

golfing at nirwana course in tanalot bali
One of my travel articles was about getting to know my caddy on a course in Bali.

One kind of freelance work I have really enjoyed is writing travel articles. Working on them makes me take a much closer look at the places we travel, ask more questions and do more research about our destinations. Close to fifty of my freelance pieces about our travels in Asia are on the Things Asian website.

Cathay Pacific pilot Dennis Toews who grew up in Steinbach was one interesting person I interviewed for a Carillon article

Over some thirty-five years, I have learned so much about so many different subjects writing and researching my newspaper columns for the regional newspaper The Carillon.

I did a cover story for The Mennonite Mirror about Olympic athlete Michelle Sawatsky

Working as a freelance writer for the magazine The Mennonite Mirror gave me an opportunity to interview Olympic athletes, politicians, business owners, entertainers, media personalities and pastors.

A freelance assignment to write a book review for the Manitoba Historical Society Journal introduced me to Mary Ritter Hamilton a Manitoba artist who went to Europe after World War I to paint haunting landscapes of former battlefields. I always enjoy book review assignments because they come with a free book.

A freelance job writing the text for a brochure our church was publishing about why we do an Indigenous land acknowledgement during our services gave me a chance to learn more about the treaties that were signed with Indigenous people in Manitoba.

I have been writing for a devotional magazine annually for nearly thirty years.

Doing freelance writing for the Rejoice devotional magazine has led me to study Biblical passages in-depth and research their context and possible application to my life.

Storylines was the name of the institutional history I wrote
Working on Storylines in my office in Hong Kong.

When I lived in Hong Kong part of my teaching assignment at the international school where I worked was to write a history of the school. It gave me a chance to interview fascinating people across the globe who had attended the school or had worked there.

I wrote an article for Rhubarb Magazine about Diversity Food Services at the University of Winnipeg

I did some freelancing for Rhubarb magazine, writing both fiction and non-fiction pieces and this pushed me to explore some new ideas and foster new kinds of writing skills.

A set of curriculum materials I developed in 2016

Some twenty freelance writing assignments developing educational curriculum for Mennonite publishing houses has given me the opportunity to research the lives of heroes from Biblical as well as modern-day times.

Free Press column about author Deborah Ellis

My three years as a freelance columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press faith page gave me a chance to interview a middle east peacekeeper, a race track chaplain, an NBA basketball player, a political party leader, authors, well-known artists and many other fascinating folks.

I’ve had stories in a number of Chicken Soup anthologies

I have done many other kinds of freelance writing assignments. I wrote a history of the Steinbach Public Library. I wrote the text and lyrics for a musical. I’ve written many different pieces for educational magazines and contributed to the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. I’ve written pieces for retirement magazines, the history of the Bethesda Hospital Women’s auxiliary, and of course the presentations and sermons and talks for retreats, church services and workshops where I have been a speaker. Right now I am writing the lectures for a course I will be teaching online in just a few weeks and just finished publishing my first solo issue of NOTES the newsletter for the Friends of the Winnipeg Public Library.

Freelancing writing has its drawbacks and difficulties, especially for those who rely on it for their sole source of income but for me, it has been a welcome addition to my other career endeavours that has enriched my life beyond measure. I am glad there is a special week to celebrate the joy of freelance writing.

Other posts………

Ten Lessons From a Writing Life

A Million

Well At Least You Like Writing

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My Photos Find New Homes

The Starvation exhibit area in the Kent Monkman show

This week I received an e-mail asking if this photo I had included in one of my blog posts about the Shame and Prejudice exhibit two years ago at the Winnipeg Art Gallery could be used in a book about the well-known Canadian artist Kent Monkman. I was happy to agree.

Since I started writing this blog many of the photos I’ve included in my posts have found new homes.

Great Plains Grizzly by Kim Epp

I took this photo of my husband looking at a statue of a Great Plains Grizzly at the Ancient Echos Centre in Hershel Saskatchewan. I used it in a post that explained how the hide of a Saskatchewan grizzly ended up in a Scottish Castle. My photo found a new home in a masters thesis project called Urban Wildlife Safari written by a student at Western University.

I took this photo at the Governor’s Palace in Merida Mexico. It was part of a mural featuring Franciscan monk Diego De Landa who tried to destroy Mayan culture. My photo found a new home in a book called The Ancient Maya by Emory University professor Megan E. O’Neil.

This photo I took of a crew filming a movie outside the condo building where I live found a new home in the third edition of a cinematography textbook by Blain Brown. It was called Cinematography: Theory and Practice and was published in twelve languages.

This photo of my grade two class found a new home in a doctoral thesis done by a teacher in the Northwest Territories. My school photo was juxtapositioned with one taken of Indigenous children the same age in the same year in a northern residential school.

I took a photo of these stumbling stones in Frankfurt Germany. They were outside the former home of a family who was killed in the Holocaust and I used them in a post called Remembering our Faults. A professor at St. Louis University gave the photo a new home in a video she made for her students.

Takashi Nagai

I took this photo at the Solanus Casey Center in Detroit while I was on a bicycle tour of the city. The Center has bronze statues of famous people whose lives exemplify one of the Beatitudes in the Bible. Takashi Nagai was a doctor who cared for victims after the bombing of Nagasaki. He illustrated the Beatitude Blessed are the meek. This photo found a new home in a book about inspirational people written by a Methodist minister in England.

I photographed this Maori Jesus image in the window of the Faith Anglican Church in Rotorua, New Zealand. It found a new home on the Sunday bulletin of an Episcopal Church in Oregon.

This photo I took inside the church on the grounds of the Mennonite Heritage Village Museum in Steinbach found a new home as the illustration for an article by Robin Fast titled An Athiest Comes Home in the magazine The Canadian Mennonite.

This photo I took of The Famous Five sculpture at the Manitoba Legislature found a new home in the Supreme Court Building in London England when the British Privy Council was celebrating its 100th year. The five women in the sculpture brought their plea for women in Canada to be recognized as persons before the Privy Council in 1927.

These are just ten of the new homes my photos have found. It’s always interesting when I am asked to let a photo be used in another place and for another purpose like I was this week. It is one of the things that makes writing this daily blog so interesting.

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I Drink Coffee and Stuff Happens !

Photo of Dave Whamond from his Facebook page.

Last night at the December meeting of the Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers, our speaker was Albertan Dave Whamond. What a guy! He has written and illustrated some fifty children’s books .

Dave creates picture books and chapter books and graphic novels for kids and they have won all kinds of awards.

But………. he also has a syndicated newspaper comic called Reality Check which has been published daily since 1995

And………………. he creates images for the popular Cobblestone Puzzle company.

And……….he does artwork for national ad campaigns for clients like Tim Hortons, Canadian Tire, Coca Cola and Disney.

And………….he does illustrations for all kinds of magazines like the Washington Post, The New York Times, Politico, The Wall Street Journal, Reader’s Digest, Macleans, National Geographic and USA Today

And………..well the whole time Dave spoke he kept referring to different kinds of projects he has worked on, or is working on, or hopes to work on, and I finally stopped writing them down because this man is just a creative machine!

Dave talked about how his parents nurtured his creativity by buying big rolls of paper and covering the hallway of their home with it so he could doodle and draw away to his heart’s content.

He told us about a letter he wrote cartoonist Lynne Johnston when he was young and how she took the time to write back and give him advice.

He advised us to never be afraid of rejection and to not be afraid of falling on our faces with our creative projects.

When asked how he came up with all the ideas he needs for all the different creative projects he works on Dave said when he gets up in the morning, “I drink coffee and stuff happens.”

After Dave’s inspiring presentation the CANSCAIP members were put in different chat rooms to visit with each other.

Photo of Elly Barlin-Daniels from her website

In my first room one of the people I got to visit with was Elly Barlin- Daniels who was profiled in the spring edition of the CANSCAIP newsletter. Elly is in the midst of producing a Broadway show and among very many other accomplishments is the marketing and communications genius behind the I READ CANADIAN annual campaign for children’s authors.

Photo from Laura Alary’s Facebook page

In my second room I was with Laura Alary an author from Halifax whose book The Astronomer Who Questioned Everything will be published in May of 2022. Another book of hers coming in March of 2022 is The Sun in My Tummy. Those two books are just part of a longer list of interesting published titles Laura has to her credit.

And in my third room I was with Sylvia McNicoll something of a creative machine herself with more than 30 children’s books to her credit. Her latest called What the Dog Knows comes out in May of 2022. During our chat Sylvia showed us the cover of one of her books which has just been translated into Korean.

In the acknowledgements section of my book Lost on the Prairie I thanked the CANSCAIP organization for the stimulating professional opportunities they give to Canadian children’s writers. Last night was a great example of that.

Other posts………

The Girl Who Loved Giraffes

Ten Things I Learned About Writing From Margriet Ruurs

Relentless Persistence

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Pantser or Plotter?

At the Christmas market in Steinbach. People who stopped at my display were interested when I talked about being a pantster. Photo thanks to my friend Debbie Jackson. I only took off my mask for the photo.

In my recent talks to various groups about my book I have explained how I wrote my novel Lost on the Prairie in pantster fashion. A pantser is someone who writes in a way ‘by the seat of their pants’. They just start writing and discover as they go what will happen to their characters.

A plotter has their entire book planned before they begin writing it.  They know what will happen to their character in each chapter or scene of the book and they plot that out with a story line graph or charts or a myriad of notecards with different scenes and events on them.  

I had the general idea for my novel before I started to write it. I knew a boy would be lost- have adventures- and then would be found. But that was it.

One day I simply sat down and started writing the first chapter of my book. My book is historical fiction so often when I was researching a certain place I’d get ideas for what the next event in my book would be. It was kind of exciting to discover what direction my story would take next. On the other hand it sometimes led me to places where I got stuck and I had to wait for inspiration, look for inspiration or ask others what to do.

There are advantages to being both a plotter and a pantster. And truth be told I think most writers are a little of both. A plantster perhaps?

Here I am working on writing a history book for the school where we taught in Hong Kong. When I am writing non-fiction I am definitely a plotter and a detailed planner as you can see from the charts and notes in my office.

Other posts……..

How Did You Become A Writer?

A Million Views

We Never Stop Talking

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Filed under Lost on the Prairie, Writing

Rejected by Chicken Soup- Barrelling Down the Mountain

I mentioned in an earlier post that from time to time I’d post stories on my blog that have been rejected by the Chicken Soup for the Soul publishers. I’ve had quite a number published in their books but an equal number of submissions have been rejected. Here is one that I submitted for a book featuring stories about Winter in Canada.

My family on our ski trip to Lake Louise

I couldn’t stop. Trees, snowboarders, rocks, and the colourful toques of fellow skiers flashed by me as I plummeted down the mountain. Then just ahead on the horizon, I saw a ledge that seemed to drop off into an abyss. This is the end I thought. I’m going to sail over that edge and plunge to my death.  So I did the only thing I could think of. I sat down. My bum banged painfully along the slippery slope for a few meters, slowing my descent. I swerved sideways and then my extended skis hit a tree. My downward flight had come to a crashing halt. 

 I was on a Christmas skiing holiday at Lake Louise in Banff Alberta with my extended family. The vacation was our Christmas gift from my parents. It was the first time skiing for many of us. The rest of my family took naturally to the sport, but I was very apprehensive. I decided to start on the beginners’ slope where a patient coach named Jason instructed me in basic ski techniques. By the end of the first day, I was riding the T-Bar up the hill with ease and swooshing down the small hill confidently. 

The next morning my two brothers encouraged me to try the big mountain. 

“You’ll be just fine,” they said.  

I did have a sense of foreboding when I launched myself out of the ski lift chair at the top of the hill and promptly fell down. The workers had to stop the lift mechanism while they dragged me out of harm’s way and helped me stand up.   I stood at the top of that massive mountain for quite a while just staring at the long winding descent and wondering if I could really ski all the way to the bottom.  I couldn’t even see my final destination.

But with my brothers’ shouts of “You can do it,” echoing in my ears I finally pushed off and started down the slope. In just a few seconds I was picking up speed at an alarming rate. I flew past other skiers, my sister, my sister-in-law, my nephews and my two astonished brothers. It wasn’t long before I realized that I didn’t know how to slow down much less stop. I was in for the ride of my life.

 It was when that ledge loomed ahead that I figured our family Christmas vacation was about to end in disaster. With death staring me in the face I simply plunked down. My butt would be black and blue the next day but my speed slowed and when I saw a tree approaching I stuck out my skis. Although they made a crunching sound as they hit the bark miraculously both my skis and my legs remained in one piece. 

My brothers picked me up, helped me take my skis off and stayed by my side as I walked all the way down that mountain. I was far too afraid to put the skis on again. I thought I’d never make it wading through that deep snow but my brothers kept telling me I would and I did. I spent the rest of our ski holiday on the friendly beginner’s slope. I’d had enough thrills. I’d been to the mountaintop and I didn’t need to go back. 

Many times during the rest of that Christmas vacation members of my family would burst out laughing for no apparent reason. When questioned they’d admit somewhat apologetically that a picture of me flying down the mountain had popped into their head. During future Christmas ski trips, I did become a fairly confident and competent skier but I suspect my family will always remember my first attempt at downhill skiing the best.

Other posts……..

Canada A Country For All Seasons


My Mennonite Grandmother’s Chicken Noodle Soup


Filed under Family, Writing

10 Things I Learned About Writing From Margriet Ruurs

Margriet Ruurs was the keynote speaker at the Prairie Horizons Conference for children’s writers in May

I have already written about the inspirational keynote address Margriet Ruurs gave at the recent Prairie Horizons Conference for children’s writers. She also did an interview with writer Alice Kuipers. Here are ten things I learned from Margriet during the conference that I want to remember as I continue to write for children.

1. Possibilities for stories are everywhere. “There are so many books out there just waiting for you to write them. Stay curious. Keep your eyes, ears and mind open and it will take a lifetime to run out of things to write about.” Margriet told us she has lined notebooks where she collects ideas.

2. While it is important for children’s books to address pressing social issues we need fun and silly books too, books brimming with happiness that aren’t filled with hidden messages and meanings. Margriet says about 90% of the books she reviews are issue-based.

When We Go Camping by Margriet Ruurs

3. The first draft of a book is often the easiest to write. It is easier to cut words from your manuscript than it is to add them. Sometimes editing can take years.

4. In order to keep publishing it seems best to have more than one project on the go at a time. Margriet is often working on five or six projects.

My Librarian Is A Camel by Margriet Ruurs

5. Doing extensive research is important even for fiction and poetry. Search for information on many different websites and look carefully at the source of the information to be sure it is authentic and trustworthy. Margriet said one of her books took seven years to research.

6. Ultimately you are not selling your book to kids but to the adults who are going to buy the book for them.

Stepping Stones by Margriet Ruurs

7. Most publishers expect you to have a social media presence and to promote your book online. Since Margriet has not been able to travel or do author visits in person during the pandemic she has used the time to work on her website. She keeps a blog about her travels.

8. Being stubborn is a valuable trait in a writer because you will get lots of rejections. Margriet has written more than a hundred children’s stories and only forty of them have been published. She talked about a binder of rejected manuscripts. On its spine, are the words, “Only those who persist are published.”

9. Being a children’s author takes lots of courage. Margriet says you need to give yourself a prize every time you submit a book because it means you have been brave. She admitted she has some manuscripts she is scared to submit.

10. You can’t count on your past track record as a children’s author. Every piece you submit has to have legs of its own. It is never easy to get published. The rejections won’t magically stop so you have to really believe in your story.

Other posts……..

Ten Things I Learned About Writing From David Robertson

What An Inspiration

Timing and Luck

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