August 18, 2016
Dear subscribers and readers:
This is a love letter. Whether you’re a subscriber or someone who has popped in occasionally to read what the heck I’m going on about, I love that you’ve made the choice to read and reflect on my musings. Thank you so much. This is also a “Dear John” letter. After writing the equivalent of three novels, I’ve decided – and not without considerable thought and angst – to hit the pause button on Trace of Whimsy.
I’ve written 187 posts over the past four years. More than 200,000 words (for reference, a typical novel runs 60,000 – 80,000 words). When I launched Trace of Whimsy I had no idea where it would take me or who might read my stories. One by one, I gathered a small and loyal following of subscribers. Every time I received a notification that someone had signed up for my blog, a surge of gratitude and joy filled my being. Please know that every one of you was responsible for making my day at least once and by extension, you provided an encouraging nudge to keep me pecking at the keys.
Good writing gives me goosebumps. I yelp when I read a delicious sentence or stumble upon a flawless series of words that possess the power to transform thought and emotion. For the writer, there’s a huge difference between almost the right word and the perfect word. As someone who has spent her entire life as a communicator (vocationally) and as a blogger (avocationally), I am constantly chasing this holy grail of writing. I can tell you it’s both seductive – and maddeningly elusive. Ernest Hemingway nails it: “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” He also said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
My blog, Trace of Whimsy, has given me the most extraordinary forum to bleed and has released my inner muse, who has blissfully frolicked in a huge, messy writing sandbox. When I set out to compose a blog I really never know where the story will take me; I admit I am not that disciplined. I usually have a topic in mind when I start, but as the letters, words and sentences mount, the story can easily dogleg left or right. Funny can turn somber, gravity can give way to wit. And too often, I lose interest in the topic as the narrative takes shape so I’ll either abandon the blog altogether or float along for the ride and see where the next bend in the river takes me.
Mostly, writing just makes me happy. It feeds my soul. Readers have regularly commented on how prolific I am: I post three or four blogs a month. They wonder how I find the time. My answer is always the same: we all find time to do the things we love (and if we don’t, we should make the time). I can no more ignore the urge to write than the musician can disregard the siren call of their instrument or the climber the mountain. I’m paraphrasing someone here, but the itch to write can only be cured by the scratching of a pen. As much as I would love to find a way to monetize my hobby (i.e. feed the soul AND feed the family), Trace of Whimsy hasn’t been about fame or fortune; it has been about exploring the limits of language and sharing my stories.
I have many more stories to tell but how I tell them is about to change. My gut, my heart and my instincts had a meeting and unanimously decided that I should step away from my blog. Temporarily. Stephen King – author of 55 (!) novels – offers a bounty of writing advice in his book, “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.” At this juncture, I am drawn to this insight: “Let’s get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.”
For now, I’ll keep my eyes on that empty sky and hope I’m self-aware enough to spot those ideas when they reveal themselves. I am excited to discover what will scratch the writing itch next.
Thank you to all my readers for your faith, encouragement, cheers (and yes, occasional jeers). You’ve been my fuel.
I’ll be back. Meantime, go well, be kind and step boldly outside your comfort zone.
Some of my and your favourite blog posts:
When baby-making takes three
Fridays with Fitz
“Belt Man,” aka Bad Halloween Mom
Enduring gifts from my dad
Mom and Rick Hansen
The family introvert doesn’t shout to be heard
Me and my sister
“What’s that?” I ask my son-in-law as he places a small tin of what looks like cement on Fitz’s high-chair tray. “Hummus,” Matt replies. “He loves it.” I watch my 17-month-old grandson pinch a cracker between his thumb and index finger and dip to scoop up a glob of paste. He sucks the goo from the cracker and dips again. The cracker doubles as a faux-spoon: Fitz’s focus is on getting hummus from tin to mouth as efficiently as possible. As fascinated as I am with his dexterity and single-minded effort, I’m even more intrigued by his adventurous palate.
This kid eats food that I’d never tasted – or knew existed – until I was well into my adult life. His culinary walk on the wild side includes sushi (see negitoro roll in feature photo), avocado and artichokes. Fitz eschews cheddar – the bunny slope of cheeses – for the off-piste of an oozy, triple cream Cambazola. At a recent Sunday dinner, Steve and I warily picked around the more piquant bits of a spicy Italian sausage lasagna, while Fitz devoured everything with zeal and demanded, “more, more!”
A shrinking world has thrown open the gates of access to a global smorgasbord. A melting pot of the world’s flavours tempts from every grocery store aisle and we are positively dizzy with the menu of dining out options. I suppose then it’s not so remarkable that as the cuisines of the world have made their way across the oceans – tickling and enticing New World taste buds more accustomed to chicken nuggets and KD – that our traditional notions of appropriate food for babies and toddlers would shift as well. In countries around the world, kids generally eat what their parents do.
In Australia, sprogs are introduced early to Vegemite, the tar-like yeast paste loved by all who live Down Under. For the rest of the world, it’s an acquired taste; for Aussies, it’s a fair dinkum staple. There’s even a Vegemite song that is apparently as well known to wee ones as our “Itsy bitsy spider went up the water spout.” It goes: “We’re happy little Vegemites, as bright as can be. We all enjoy our Vegemite for breakfast, lunch, and tea.” All together now.
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A former male colleague once had the unenviable task of addressing a highly uncomfortable issue: confronting one of his employees about her excessive use of perfume. He’d avoided the conversation for weeks, months even. But he couldn’t duck it forever: everyone in the surrounding office area begged him to talk to her. Cheap cologne – the kind that triggers asthma symptoms and makes one desperate for a nearby open window – hung about the cramped shared workspace like an invisible accessory. The employee was a smoker, so the collective theory was that her sense of smell was compromised and she had no idea she was over-spritzing. Whatever the cause, the cloying stench in the air had reached maximum effluvium and intervention was needed.
Her manager quietly sought advice from Human Resources about how to handle this delicate subject. He also checked in with peers for their input on diplomatic ways to drop this (stink) bomb on the oblivious employee. All counsel advised focusing on staying away from anything that smelled of a personal “you use too much perfume” attack, and instead making it about health and her co-workers’ respiratory concerns. When he’d prepared (and procrastinated) all he could, he invited the uber-pungent woman into his office for the talk.
To say it went down poorly would be an understatement: she was devastated. She denied her perfume use was excessive. She raged. She sobbed. It was a gong show. The well-rehearsed manager was stunned by her reaction, caught completely off-guard. In an ironic twist to the story, the perfume problem ended because the employee went on a long-term stress leave shortly afterwards.
Many organizations have established scent-free workplace policies to address the health concerns, so it’s unlikely that what happened in my workplace those many years ago would be such an issue today. But, I flashed back to that incident recently when my colleague, Dene Rossouw, and I ran one of our business writing workshops. An HR manager – let’s call her Claire – was a participant. Claire had taken on a big, hairy project: drafting a dress code for her organization.
With the onset of warmer weather, she and her colleagues were frustrated to witness employees shedding the layers. Staff were taking advantage of the loosely-written, seldom-followed policy to write their own rules. If bare legs and bare arms are allowed, why not bare backs or bellies? Flip-flops, shorts and crop tops – of course! The employees’ disregard for professionalism was swiftly followed by a surge of SOS calls from supervisors, imploring HR to provide explicit direction on what’s acceptable and what’s not.
A tall order, but Claire was determined to tackle this prickly issue. The dress code guidelines clearly would require more than a day’s worth of workshop effort, but she was eager to get it started.
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“When do you capitalize the days of the week other than at the beginning of a sentence?” That’s a real question, asked of me by a participant attending a “Business Writing for Results” workshop I co-facilitate with my colleague, Dene Rossouw. I was dismayed – ok, aghast – when I realized that this adult learner (English was her first language) was serious. A couple of people chimed in with a hesitant “always” but both looked at me to confirm that I would corroborate their input. Tactfully, I responded that yes, the days of the week are always capitalized.
We include a grammar refresher in our workshop because participants repeatedly ask for it. We are also of the opinion that fairly or not, people are judged by how they communicate. People who notice your errors might not correct you, but they will always judge you. Good communication equals reputation and credibility. You may be pitching an awesome idea or imparting well-researched data, but if the reader trips over confusing sentence structure, spelling errors and a clutch of grammatical goofs, there’s little chance those golden nuggets will ever see the light of day.
I facilitate this section of the workshop (to Dene’s enormous relief) where the focus is on some of the more common errors made in business writing. I’m not a grammar expert – and don’t represent myself as one – so we stay away from complex linguistic theory in favour of sharing useful, practical tips. We touch on consistently confused words (affect/effect, disinterested/uninterested, etc.), the difference between i.e. and e.g. (always an a-ha moment for many), some punctuation and jargon. With the help of Weird Al Yankovic’s “Word Crimes” video, we keep it breezy and fun rather than pedantic.
While not a grammar expert, I admit I’m a bit of a nerd. I certainly appreciate a well-appointed semi-colon and the drumroll of the colon – letting me know that something important is coming – thrills me. I am hyper-aware of grammatical errors and typos to the extent that I can’t read a menu without finding two or three. I scream out loud when I see a public sign with a glaring error. Subject/verb disagreement? Nails on a chalkboard. And why is it so difficult for some people to grasp the difference between you’re and your?
For many years, I drove to work along Powell Street and I became convinced that the Grammar Gremlin was deliberately provoking me: daily, I had to pass a humongous billboard that crowed, “The Cannery Seafood Restaurant. Seafood at it’s finest.” More evidence that plenty of people find the it’s/its rule incomprehensible. My exasperation at this 14 by 48 foot error was further fuelled as I speculated about the numbers of people who likely touched this sign in some capacity on its way to becoming a billboard. I despaired that not only did the client not notice, but nary a PR hack working on that campaign seemed to either. In apoplectic apostrophic protest, I refused to eat at the Cannery. It’s closed now – proof that you don’t need 1,000 angry people camping out on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery to make a difference.
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I can’t remember when exactly I noticed the creeping, insidious trend spreading like a super bug on the world wide web. Letterman parlayed it into his signature comedic stunt but then everyone and their penguin jumped on the Top 10 list craze. I use the word “craze” deliberately: it’s cray-cray how these fridge-magnet doses of vapid writing have proliferated.
To be clear, there are some lists I appreciate: for example, I’ll scour the New York Times weekly top 10 fiction and non-fiction listings knowing it may influence what I read next. I am a sucker for song countdown lists, anticipating the announcement of the #1 song in 1987 (“Walk Like an Egyptian” by the Bangles – I knew you were curious). I value helpful hints, such as presentation tips by colleague, Janice Jacob, which serve as spot-on reminders of getting one’s shit together before stepping up to the podium.
But many lists are twaddle, a hackneyed gimmick. They’ve been done to death and I’m sick of them.
I get that they’re catchy and memorable. Say for instance you don’t get the fascination with Game of Thrones but everyone at your office is hooked on the show. You know that come tomorrow, there’s gonna be serious water-cooler rehashing of last night’s episode. To dodge reliving the outlier hell you experienced as a wretched wallflower at your grade nine sock-hop, you turn to Google for help. Into the search bar you type, “10 things you didn’t see coming in Game of Thrones.” Up pops all manner of crib notes about direwolf pups and dragons, giving you the cred to nod wisely, titter at the right moments and maybe even lob a, “Hey, could you believe when Jaime pushed Bran out of the tower?” spoiler alert.
I’m pledging right here to never bait-click an inane top 10 list again. And I’m not going to ask you to wade through 10 points because that would be (a) cruel, (b) predictable, and (c) until I get going, I actually don’t have any idea how many thoughts on the topic I’ll end up with. Instead, I’ll number the remaining paragraphs to give my ramblings a semblance of flow.
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