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).