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



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.

Four writers, four questions #3 Deborah Griffiths

Here’s the third installment of Four Writers, Four Questions. Installment #4 will be posted next week.

What are you working on right now?

I have a combination of light and intense work on the daily writing menu right now. I’ve just finished co-authoring Watershed Moments-A Pictorial History of Courtenay and District. It was a great experience working with my co-authors  and the editors at Harbour Publishing.

This process inspired me to go back to my second novel, Snow on the Monashee and clean it up. This is light work and gives me a view of how my approach to writing- and the world- has changed since I wrote it in 2014.

My more intense work is creating an outline for a new historic non-fiction book. I love research and discovery so this is exciting and I enjoy putting pieces of a puzzle together and creating an outline. The nice thing about outlines is that they’re so fluid. The basic bones remain the same as I move along; but the flow around them changes as I progress.

Why is this meaningful to you?

Right now, being able to move back and forth between fiction and non-fiction is meaningful to me. Until recently, I’ve put them into two categories, as though I had to choose between one friend and another. Non-fiction has always been my “work” as a curator and contractor. It’s enjoyable, but I use different processes for it than I do for fiction. I’m learning that creating both improves my writing.

DebWhen working on Watershed and talking to Paula about it, she gave me some great advice about presenting history in a pleasurable reading style. Seeing the response to the book and working with the other authors’ styles has been an eye-opener. I’ve begun to worry less about what readers think about my writing and to focus more on what I bring to life and the readers’ enjoyment.

I’ve also recently been reading books like In Fact: The Best of Creative Non-Fiction by Lee Gutkind. This has helped me remove my self-imposed style boundaries between fiction and non-fiction.

What is your process?

My process involves taking my curiosity and wrapping that up with a love of work, daily routine and focus. Pair this with intermittent procrastination, insecurity and second-guessing and it’s a typical week.

For ongoing learning, I read a lot. I also subscribe to a couple of blogs that delve into the nitty-gritty of writing and push me. One is Daphne Grey Grant’s Publication Coach (Vancouver) blog. Her take is that writing is open to the public and it’s not a higher mystery. It requires organization, work, strategy and inspiration from reading, listening and all aspects of life.

Finally, I have wonderful friends and family who are patient with my rough drafts and projects. My family tends to see plain-old-everyday writing as a fine means of expression. The more humour the better. Growing up, my father wrote poems and put them into our brown-bag lunches. My mother was a crossword aficionado and more. My uncle is 97 and just published a book of 97 poems. The list goes on. How lucky could I be?

Why do you write?

I write because it’s a creative state of constant improvement, learning and discovery. It’s a world of acknowledging and following connections and possibilities. I’m able to take my pick of subjects: people, nature, animals, landscapes, seascapes and skyscapes, past, present, future-and run with it. A free-range writer.

Deborah Griffiths is the author of two fiction books (written under the pen name Deborah Greene) and three non-fiction books including Heather’s Amazing Discovery (finalist, children’s non-fiction, Vancouver Children’s Literature Roundtable) and Watershed Moments—A Pictorial History of Courtenay and District (with Christine Dickinson, Judy Hagen and Catherine Siba).