Lighting up the dark…

2020 turned into a weird blip in the 21st cen­tury, where life as we know it, took an ab­rupt and life-chan­ging shift. For many, it has been marked by fear, bore­dom and frustration.

And now it’s the shortest, darkest day of the year. Winter Solstice, the of­fi­cial be­gin­ning of winter. What could be more bleak than that?

But when I look out­side, I can’t help but smile. My neigh­bor­hood and many oth­ers are ablaze with col­our­ful lights and dis­plays. The hol­i­day sparkle began  early this year. I be­lieve it’s hu­man­kinds way of light­ing up the dark in the midst of a glob­al pandemic.

Reflecting on my per­son­al life dur­ing the Time of Covid, I also see some light. One of my most re­ward­ing ex­per­i­ences was a Covid-safe writ­ing re­treat at Cluxewe Resort on Northern Vancouver Island.

Welcome sign and my cab­in at Cluxewe Resort

My cab­in provided a view across Queen Charlotte Strait to the BC main­land, a stun­ning es­tu­ary a short dis­tance to the rear and, per­haps most im­port­ant of all, time.

I op­ted to not hook up to Wi-Fi or turn on the big screen TV so my sound­scape con­sisted of eagles call­ing, pound­ing surf dur­ing a big storm and rain­drops beat­ing a stac­cato rhythm on the met­al roof.

Nature was my only dis­trac­tion and with it came a feel­ing of space, as if the vast­ness out­side had seeped into my mind, provid­ing room to pon­der the book I’m work­ing on and what dir­ec­tion it will take me. The oas­is of that little cab­in and the time and space it provided were pre­cious gifts in a year of un­cer­tainty and upheaval.

Cluxewe River estuary

And, al­though there is still an abund­ance of dark­ness in each 24-hour stretch, light is on the way. The Winter Solstice means minutes of light will be ad­ded to each day and, even bet­ter, Covid-19 vac­cines are on the way.

As 2020 comes to a close, I hope every­one can find some time to think about what lights up their life (even dur­ing Covid) and take at least one small step to make that happen.

Top im­age by Dzenina Lukac

Creativity and Covid-19

Covid-19 and the res­ult­ing re­stric­tions are like liv­ing in a sci­ence fic­tion movie only the end doesn’t ar­rive in two hours. We fret about toi­let pa­per, people who in­vade our two metre space and loved ones that are now kept at a dis­tance. The tilt in our world was sud­den and the fu­ture re­mains uncertain.

People cope with stress and change in dif­fer­ent ways. My in­stinct was to sleep and for the first month I clocked in nine hours or more a night plus an af­ter­noon nap. I haven’t slept that much since I was a teenager.

My partner’s cop­ing crutch is chocol­ate. During the first week of phys­ic­al dis­tan­cing, Rick brought home two gi­ant slabs of chocol­ate cake, two pounds of Belgian chocol­ate and two boxes of chocol­ate cook­ies. At some point, we real­ized that ex­cess­ive sleep­ing and gor­ging on chocol­ate was not sus­tain­able long-term.

I turned, as I have for much of my life, to writ­ing. To me, writ­ing is a place in my mind where there are many doors and end­less op­por­tun­it­ies for ex­plor­a­tion and adventure.

But on oc­ca­sion, it’s dif­fi­cult to ac­cess this place. For a while, Covid-19 was an in­vis­ible wall res­ult­ing in lots of white space on my laptop screen. And I wasn’t the only one. Artists aban­doned their easels; some writers didn’t even turn on their computers.

So, how to prime the cre­ativ­ity pump in the midst of a glob­al pan­dem­ic? Unfortunately, there’s no ma­gic trick to se­duce the muse into a vis­it. But go­ing for a walk can pro­duce start­ling results.

According to an art­icle by psy­cho­lo­gist Sian Beilock in “Psychology Today,” an abund­ance of con­cen­tra­tion can kill cre­ativ­ity.  On the oth­er hand, do­ing some­thing that re­quires only a small amount of con­cen­tra­tion such as wash­ing the car, va­cu­um­ing the rug or brush­ing the dog of­ten al­lows the brain to con­nect thoughts in new and per­haps un­usu­al ways.

When I told chiro­pract­or, Alicia Steele, that I fre­quently find solu­tions to writ­ing prob­lems while walk­ing, she ex­plained that the bi­lat­er­al move­ment of arms and legs pro­motes activ­ity in both sides of the brain.

Taking a break and do­ing some­thing re­l­at­ively mind­less can en­hance cre­ativ­ity. The trick is to not think about the prob­lem you’re try­ing to solve.

As for stress, I’ve al­ways found writ­ing an es­cape from the wor­ries my brain chooses to ru­min­ate on and sus­pect many cre­at­ive folks feel the same.

No one ex­plains it bet­ter than Graham Greene in Ways of Escape: Writing is a form of ther­apy; some­times I won­der how all those who do not write, com­pose, or paint can man­age to es­cape the mad­ness, mel­an­cho­lia, the pan­ic and fear which is in­her­ent in a hu­man situation.”

Photo by Rick James



Writers, words and time

Words and time are some­thing every writer wrestles with. Two truths sum up the dilemma:

  1. There is nev­er enough time to write.
  2.  When you do write, you nev­er pro­duce as many words as you’d like.

Professional writers and those who are ser­i­ous about writ­ing, even if they have oth­er ob­lig­a­tions, such as day jobs and or young fam­il­ies, learn to set aside time every day – or at least every week – to prac­tise their craft. And it’s called prac­tise be­cause, just like play­ing the pi­ano, the more you do it, the bet­ter you get.

But what con­sti­tutes a reas­on­able writ­ing prac­tise? Many pro­fes­sion­als set them­selves a min­im­um word count each day. According to “The Daily Word Counts of 39 Famous Authors,” Ernest Hemingway aimed for 500 words a day while Sophie Kinsella man­ages 1,000 and Stephen King av­er­ages 2,000.

Once, I con­duc­ted a 30 minute phone in­ter­view and com­pleted a 1,000 word art­icle with­in two hours. But most non­fic­tion pro­jects – es­pe­cially a book – rarely move that quickly. What seems like a simple sen­tence can lead to hours of fact-check­ing or track­ing down elu­sive sources.

So, in­stead of set­ting daily word counts, I don’t con­sider my work day over un­til I’ve put in a min­im­um of five in­tensely fo­cused hours on my book. That can in­clude in­ter­views and re­search, as well as writ­ing. In fact, re­search can make up as much as 75% of the time I spend on a non­fic­tion book.

At the end of five hours, I may have writ­ten five pages, five para­graphs or five sen­tences. I put in the time but the words — and re­search — set their own pace. In an in­ter­view by Alan Twigg pos­ted on BC Booklook, the late Al Purdy, poet ex­traordin­aire, noted that he wrote the title poem to Caribou Horses in 30 minutes while an­oth­er poem, “Postscript,” took sev­en years.

When you write can make a dif­fer­ence too. In “Famous Authors Routines: Rise Early, Work Early, and Count The Words,” David Paul Kirkpatrick ob­serves that many fam­ous au­thors get up early – even be­fore first light — to write.

I must con­fess, the sol­it­ary si­lence of early morn­ing is my fa­vour­ite – and most pro­duct­ive – time to write. The house and neigh­bour­hood are quiet, it’s highly un­likely the phone will ring and my brain is un­sul­lied by the chat­ter and oc­cur­rences of the day. That’s when it’s easi­est to lose my­self in my work.

A computer generated collage by artist Bev Byerley.
A com­puter gen­er­ated col­lage by artist Bev Byerley. www​.bevby​er​ley​.com

Occasionally, I even flip the angst of in­som­nia into cre­at­ive en­ergy by get­ting up to write. Tiptoeing to the com­puter with mug of tea in hand feels slightly naughty and I know I’ll sur­render to sleep at some point in the day. But in the mean­time, I’m dis­trac­ted from whatever was keep­ing me awake…and, strangely, the words seem to fill the page faster than usual.

I nev­er take my work (or self) too ser­i­ously at 2 am so that may ex­plain the tsunami of sen­tences. But part of the ma­gic, I’m sure, comes from be­ing some­where between con­scious­ness and sleep, that dreamy, half-awake state that shuts off the in­ner cen­sor and al­lows the muse to creep in.

Four writers, four questions #4 Rick James

The last in­stall­ment of Four writers, four questions.

What are you work­ing on right now?

For the past five or so years, I’ve been im­mersed in re­search­ing and writ­ing about West Coast rum run­ning, a fas­cin­at­ing top­ic which soon be­came an ob­ses­sion. In January 1920, the National Prohibition or Volstead Act was of­fi­cially de­clared in the U.S. of A. Meanwhile, voters in British Columbia de­cided, that after three years, they’d had enough of their government’s own failed at­tempt to cur­tail the con­sump­tion of al­co­hol and brought it to an end in a plebis­cite that year. As a res­ult, with li­quor leg­al on one side of the bor­der and out­right il­leg­al just over the line, rum run­ning into the United States from British Columbia soon proved an ex­tremely luc­rat­ive enterprise.

My primary fo­cus has been to ex­plore how rum run­ning was op­er­ated out of British Columbia and down along the U.S. coast and even into Mexican wa­ters. Basically, my goal is to provide not only a com­pre­hens­ive his­tory of the vari­ous ves­sels and char­ac­ters in­volved in the mari­time li­quor trade, but also to ex­plore the ma­jor eco­nom­ic and polit­ic­al con­sequences of what quickly proved a very re­ward­ing en­ter­prise for all in­volved. 

Why is this mean­ing­ful to you?

018Maritime his­tory has al­ways been of par­tic­u­lar in­terest to me es­pe­cially hav­ing been born and raised on Canada’s West Coast and spend­ing a lot of time out on the wa­ter ever since I was a boy sports fish­ing with dad on south­ern Vancouver Island. For most of my life, I’ve lived, worked and con­tin­ue to ex­plore this unique coastal en­vir­on­ment. In the late 1980s, I delved deep­er into these wa­ters by re­search­ing our coast’s mari­time his­tory and at­tempt­ing to identi­fy the fas­cin­at­ing col­lec­tion of fif­teen old ships that made up Royston’s hulk break­wa­ter. (Up un­til the time, nobody had kept a re­cord of what was bur­ied there were.) This soon led to vari­ous re­search and writ­ing en­deav­ours first ap­pear­ing in the Victoria Times Colonist and Western Mariner magazine.

What is your process?

A good por­tion of my re­search time is spent in vari­ous archives thumb­ing through old news­pa­per mi­cro­films at­tempt­ing to un­ravel coastal tales and mys­ter­ies. I think the key to my suc­cess is that I’m some­what of an ob­sess­ive com­puls­ive in­di­vidu­al when it comes to re­search. God only knows how many hun­dreds upon hun­dreds of hours I’ve spent fer­ret­ing out ori­gin­al, primary source ma­ter­i­al or flip­ping through reels upon reels of old news­pa­per mi­cro­film chas­ing down a first-hand ac­count of ship’s sink­ing. I’ve also spent one heck of a lot of time search­ing through lib­rar­ies and archives all the way from the read­ily ac­cess­ible B.C. Archives in Victoria, the Vancouver Maritime Museum and right down to the J. Porter Shaw Maritime Research Centre in San Francisco.

Then there’s the ac­tu­al pro­cess of sit­ting down in front of my key­board and mon­it­or and sort­ing through the mess of pho­to­copied re­cords and news­pa­per stor­ies all stacked on my desk and try­ing to bring some semb­lance of or­der to it all. (This part of the pro­cess has al­ways been a prob­lem for me since I’m some­what of a hy­per per­son­al­ity and find it hard to re­main seated for any length of time.) But once im­mersed in a tale that grabs my in­terest, I’ve learned over time that I can really pound out text; es­pe­cially when I’m onto a real good story line.

 Why do you write?

I still think of my­self as a stu­dent rather than as a ‘his­tor­i­an’ and my greatest re­ward is learn­ing about dif­fer­ent events, many of which are fast dis­ap­pear­ing from loc­al memory. But when comes right down to it, be­ing able to piece a story to­geth­er and then share your sleuth­ing re­search with oth­ers via pub­lic­a­tion really keeps me in­spired. And many a time, fol­low­ing a stor­ies pub­lic­a­tion, I’ve re­ceived a phone call or a let­ter in the mail from an old salt to say he really en­joyed the story, but just wants to set me straight re­gard­ing a fact or two. I find that par­tic­u­larly re­ward­ing. But still, as all writers know, see­ing one’s cre­at­ive en­deav­ours out there on news­stands or in book­stores to be read by all, is per­haps a bet­ter re­ward than the cheque re­ceived from a publisher.

Rick James’ work has ap­peared in nu­mer­ous peri­od­ic­als in­clud­ing British Columbia Magazine, The Beaver: Canadas History Magazine, The Sea Chest: Journal of Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society and Western Mariner. He is also the au­thor of Raincoast Chronicles 21: West Coast Wrecks & Other Maritime Tales and the Underwater Archaeological Society of B.C. pub­lic­a­tion: Ghost Ships of Royston, as well as co-au­thor of  its Historic Shipwrecks of the Sunshine Coast, and Historic Shipwrecks of B.C.s Central Coast re­ports.