Category Archives: Writing

A Letter to Isabella

I just finished writing a letter to a young woman named Isabella. She lives in Oregon. She is my sister’s niece and her grade six class is doing a special project.  At the beginning of the year Isabella started a journal. On its first pages she wrote a letter in which she introduced herself and the city she calls home.  Then she sent the journal to someone who lived in another city or country.  That person wrote a letter to Isabella about where they lived and then sent it on to someone in another place. Eventually the journal reached my sister in Winnipeg and she sent the journal to me in Portugal. Since Isabella’s project started at the beginning of the school year, her journal has had time to travel all over Canada and to places as far away as Uganda. It was interesting for me to read all the letters her journal already contained. 

I wrote a letter to Isabella about the food here in Portugal, the beautiful cobblestone sidewalks, the storks who build such gigantic nests and some of the art I’ve seen by Portuguese artists.  I also had to take pictures of Isabella’s journal in various places here in Portugal and send them to her.  Here are the photos I sent. 

Isabella’s journal by the fence around an orchard of oranges.

Isabella’s journal beside a flower design in the cobblestones in Faro

Isabella’s journal at Cape St. Vincent lighthouse at the southwestern tip of Portugal.

For those of you who have been following my posts about trying to do eight things a day to become a better writer……….. writing a personal letter is the fifth thing.  Letter writing is becoming something of a lost art in our electronic age where we tweet and text in short little spurts.  I decided I was going to write actual letters to people and not just about business matters related to my part time jobs and community involvements, but actual personal letters. So writing a letter to Isabella fit nicely into my plan to work on my writing skills during my time in Portugal. 

How did composing letters help hone my writing skills?

 It reminded me to consider my audience. A letter is addressed to a specific audience and so you choose the things you are going to write about and choose how to talk about them with that audience in mind.  I knew for example that Isabella was in grade six so I tried to think of things to write about in her letter that a twelve year old might be interested in.  You have to consider your audience’s interest, mood and age when you attempt any piece of writing. You also have to figure out an engaging way to start a letter and a satisfying way to wrap things up at the end.  That’s important in any good piece of writing.

I ended Isabella’s letter by telling her I had traveled to nearly forty different countries of the world and what I had learned from my experiences was that most people in the world are good and kind and share many similarities with one another. 

Other posts………..

A Lament for Letters

Mailboxes of Distinction


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The Artist’s Way- Thing Four

My writers’ group in Winnipeg meets tonight.  While I have been in Portugal they have started working their way through a book called The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. I didn’t want to miss out so I bought the book and have been following along and sending my writers’ group updates on my progress.  The book invites you to explore your creativity in a whole variety of interesting ways. Here are five I have already tried. 

  • Morning Papers- You journal in a free-flowing kind of way each morning optimally three pages full of writing.  You write anything you want- kind of stream of consciousness without thought to organization or audience.  I’m on my second little journal already and I’m loving this kind of writing.  I write about such different things than I do in my blog writing, or newspaper column writing or fiction writing.

    Having an artist’s date on a patio here in Praia da Luz

  • Artist’s Date- You do something special for yourself that gives you time and space and opportunity to explore your creativity. Some of the members of my writers group have taken ballet lessons, had facials, and visited art galleries.  One kind of date I often give myself is to go to a sunny patio here in Portugal, order a class of wine or a fancy coffee and maybe one of those luscious egg tarts the Portuguese are famous for and spend time on my own reading or sketching or just thinking.

    Me off to school in kindergarten

  • Write a Letter to Your Childhood Self-  I realized in doing this that many of the things I was fearful and concerned about as a child have not materialized and although not all my childhood dreams have come true other good things have happened to me I couldn’t have anticipated. 

    My Mom framed the first newspaper article I had published at age 10. I still have it.

  • Write About People Who Have Championed You as A Creative Person-  I wrote about my mother who framed my first newspaper article at age 10 and who maintained these huge scrapbooks where she pasted copies of every newspaper and magazine article I had published. I wrote about my brother who prodded and encouraged me to publish my first piece of fiction and my friend Perry who gave me such affirmation about the picture book I am trying to publish. 

    I discovered these donation boxes on one of my short walks here in Praia Da Luz. Donated items are sold to raise funds for disabled children.

  • Take a Twenty Minute Walk- I am doing lots of hiking here in Portugal with other people but I’ve been trying to go on short walks on my own too, often just through the streets of the town where we are living. I’ve made a couple interesting discoveries that way. One is  this colorful donation box which collects goods that are sold in a local second hand store. The funds are used to help Portuguese children with disabilities. 

Exploring the book The Artist’s Way is the fourth step on what my friend Rudy calls ‘my eight fold path’ to becoming a better writer during my holiday here in Portugal. 

Other posts………

Thing 1

Thing 2

Thing 3

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Thing 3- Reading- On the Eight Fold Path

My friend Rudy calls it ‘the eight fold path’ .  I have a list of eight things I try to do everyday here in Portugal to develop as a writer.  I already wrote about Thing 1  and Thing 2 on my path. This post is about Thing 3.

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all other: read a lot and write a lot.” – Stephen King

That’s my justification for Thing 3…….. not that I need one.  I LOVE to read and don’t just do so because I know as Stephen King says it will make me a better writer. I have read quite a few books already during our time in Portugal but have now started what has become something of a ritual for me on our winter holidays…………trying to get through all the Canada Reads nominees.  

I just finished my first book Boat People by Sharon Bala.  I have to say I loved this book so much I am almost ready to declare it the winner before reading any of the others.  It is a fictional story but based on events in 2009 and 2010 when ship loads of Sri Lankin Tamils fleeing civil war in their country arrived in Vancouver.  Were they legitimate refugees or were some of them members of the terrorist Tamil Tigers?  Hundreds of the Sri Lankin refugees were detained until hearings could determine whether or not they would be of danger to Canadian citizens. 

The story of Boat People is told through the eyes of three characters.  Mahindan is a man with a six year old son who is a refugee suspected of Tamil Tiger ties.  Mahindan’s  young lawyer Priya is a second generation Sri Lankan- Canadian. Grace is the government appointed adjucator who hears and will decide Mahindan’s case.  Grace is Japanese Canadian and her parents and grandparents were put in a detention camp during World War II.  

Sharon Bala’s riveting story makes us realize just how complicated and subjective and messy the process of admitting refugees to Canada can be. Do circumstances beyond their control often force potential immigrants to cooperate with terrorist demands in their home countries? Are there enough experienced lawyers to defend refugees claiming citizenship?  Are adjucators politically motivated because of who appointed them? These are just a few of the questions the book poses. 

 Even though my husband and I, and other members of our family, have been very involved in bringing refugees to Canada and supporting them, I still learned a great many new things about the Canadian immigration process from this book. At the same time I was also totally engaged with the story. 
From a writers’ perspective Sharon Bala’s book taught me………….
1) The importance of detailed historical research 
2) The benefits of telling a story from more than one character’s perspective
3) The rewards  of writing about something related to your own background- Sharon Bala is a Sri-Lankian Canadian writer from Newfoundland
4) The value of keeping your readers in suspense
 Other posts………..

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Thing 1- Wired For Story- Portugal Style

My friend Rudy who is staying here in Portugal with us for three weeks likes to tease me about my ‘eight things.’  Everyday I try to do eight things to explore and hone and cultivate my craft as a writer.  Thing One is to read a chapter in a book about writing or listen to a video from a course about writing.  I just finished the book Wired for Story by Lisa Cron. It was recommended by Gabriele, a member of my writer’s group.  Here are my top take aways!

 1. Story telling trumps beautiful writing every time! It is important to write well but you must also spin a story that  hooks your readers. 

Our tour guide in Lisbon was a fantastic storyteller

2. Your story needs to tell us something about what it means to be human and how humans react to circumstances beyond their control. 

The beggars in Lisbon deal with their difficult circumstances in different ways

3. You should be able to sum up your story in one short sentence. 

Cramped by Hunger– the short description of this painting by Portuguese artist Marcelino Vespeira tells such a sad story.  

4. Your story should change the way your reader sees the world. 

Portuguese Prince Henry the Navigator changed the way the people of Europe saw the world.

5. Every detail in your story should be specific, tangible and visceral. 

Smelling the pine on a hike in Portugal. Your story must have sensory details

6. There must be CONFLICT and it should begin to sprout on the first page of your story. 

There has been plenty of conflict in Portugal’s history

7. Everything that could go wrong for your protagonist should go wrong. 

As we made the trek to our apartment in Lisbon we faced many obstacles

8. There has to be a kind of ticking clock built into your story that make the dangers your protagonist is facing clear and present and intimate. 

I felt a clear sense of danger when this eagle flew right by my ear

9.  The response and advice of others is important and helpful as you rewrite and rewrite and rewrite your story.

Many of the people we have been getting together with here in Portugal read my blog and I love hearing their responses.

10. You will need INCREDIBLE determination and patience to get your story published. 

The cobble stone artists of Portugal require tremendous determination and patience to complete their work

Other posts…………

So Much Hard Work

A Glamourous Night for Manitoba Writing

 Quick Five



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What Are People Saying?

I have been getting a fair number of comments on my recent blog posts. I thought I’d share some of my reader’s responses with you.

dave bargains with sellers in a saigon marketA teacher responded to my post What Is Your Body Saying? with this comment. I talk about body language a lot with my middle years girls; it’s important they know the power of that form of communication and how it can help or hinder. Eye rolls, turning away, standing in a closed and unwelcome circle….I find the power of non-verbal communication so fascinating! Thanks for the interesting article.

mary barkmanOne of Mary Barkman’s daughters wrote to tell me how much she appreciated my post She Persisted about the contributions her mother had made to the founding of the library in Steinbach. She learned some new things about her mother’s important role. 

confessional booth at the Vatican

My husband Dave in front of a confessional booth at the Vatican

A reader said the kind of public corporate confession in this post is just an admission we are all human.  She remarked that personal confessions with people who are important to us are what is really tough.  Another reader said that sometimes when a corporate confession is being read in his church he looks around and thinks to himself ‘ this confession doesn’t really apply to anyone here.’  

Three-Billboards-Outside-Ebbing-Missouri-filmA reader in Florida wasn’t sure he agreed with my review of the movie Three Billboards Outside  Ebbing Missouri. He said, I saw a tremendous amount of grace and forgiveness in this movie, made all the more profound by the intense anger, frustration, brutality and despair of the characters. I found it to be deeply truthful and even hopeful.

Pitaloosie and Aqsatunnguaq

Watercolor by Pitaloosie Saila

A faithful daily blog reader encouraged me not to stop using ’empty adjectives’ completely since they provide emotional context. 

anneken jans

Etching of Anneken Jans handing over her baby by Jan Luiken from the Martyrs Mirror, 1685

A reader in Hawaii commented on my essay Is It Wrong to Die For Your Faith  .    He said it raised fascinating questions and is consistent with what he believes about life and faith. 

When I posted about our new European style bedding several readers sent messages to tell me they had been sleeping like this for years.  One reader from British Columbia said it was the perfect solution to her and her husband’s different sleeping styles. 

Upstairs Bedroom by Margruite Krahn

I was honored Erin Unger referred to my post Mennonite Floor Art on her popular mennotoba blog.

When I wrote about how Jagmeet Singh the new leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party and I both talk with our hands a former colleague who lives in Hong Kong said..Your animated manner of speaking, both with words and gestures, are what make you an engaging conversationalist, MaryLou!  My cousin in Saskatchewan told me he had recently been in Ottawa and had met Jagmeet Singh. 

A reader from Dahahran commented on one of my posts about a fishing village in Iceland we visited. She said her own family hailed originally from a Norwegian fishing village not too far away. 



A reader from Minneapolis liked yesterday’s post about King David’s mother. She said we need more archetypal strong women…whether Jewish or Gentile, Muslim or Hindi..

I sincerely appreciate the hundreds of people who take the time to read my blog each day.  

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Empty Adjectives

Don’t use so many empty adjectives.  I was going through an old journal I kept during the time my younger son was a communications student at university. He was taking writing and journalism courses so I asked him to read a number of my newspaper columns and give me some advice on how I could improve my writing.  One of his suggestions was that I needed to get rid of the empty adjectives in my pieces.  

I guess I didn’t take my son’s advice too seriously because on rereading his words a decade later I still had no idea what empty adjectives were.  I decided it was probably time to find out. After a little internet research I discovered empty adjectives are describing words that add a friendlier softer tone to sentences but do not add any meaningful content. Research says women are more prone to using empty adjectives than men. 

Armed with my new knowledge about ’empty adjectives’ I  looked back at my recent blog posts and sure enough it didn’t take me long to find some empty adjectives.  

We had delightful eggnog cheesecake. That’s how I described the dessert at a Christmas get together with my friends in a recent blog.  Delightful is an empty adjective.  I could have used more specific adjectives like creamy or spicy or chocolate -topped. They would have told you more about my cheesecake unlike the empty adjective delightful. 

Pitaloosie and Aqsatunnguaq – a watercolor by Pitaloosie Saila

There is a sad story behind this gorgeous watercolor of Pitaloosie and her sister. I used that sentence in a blog post describing a painting by Inuit artist Pitaloosie Saila.  Gorgeous is an empty adjective.  I could have used more specific adjectives like poignant, child-like or colorful.  They would have told you more about the artwork unlike the empty adjective gorgeous. 

My son was right!  I do use empty adjectives.  I am going to try to cure myself of that habit.  If you discover an empty adjective in my blog posts please do let me know. 

Other posts………

It is Beginning To Feel Like Christmas

A Very Personal Story

Who’s Right? My Husband or Me? 



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I’m on mennotoba

Andrew Bergman is the author and host of the popular and humorous  site The Daily Bonnet.  Recently Andrew and his partner Erin have started another site called mennotoba.  It features stories about all things Mennonite in our province but from a more serious and less satirical perspective than The Daily Bonnet.  On Tuesday I was featured on the site answering questions about my travels, Manitoba and my career as a writer.  The questions were excellent and really made me think. 

You can check out my interview here.

 Other posts……..

One of My Photographs is in the Supreme Court Building in London

In A Cinematography Textbook

My First Published Piece of Fiction

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