Category Archives: Writing

The Three Rs: Reading, Writing, and Re-charging

This summer, I took the longest sustained pause since completing my PhD. I knew I needed a break, but my time kept getting eroded. I decided a year ago to safeguard this summer to recharge, and also to focus on my non-academic writing. With caring for aging parents, and then launching right into the PhD, life had been taking priority over the creative work for more than a decade. Six manuscripts had been parked that I wanted to get back to. I brought three with me on retreat, knowing that my writing focus tends to change with the weather.

It rained six days out of seven quite consistently, sometimes with violent wind, thunder and lightning; so while not a good summer for painting and outdoor cottage repairs, it proved very productive in terms of one of my writing projects. A poetry manuscript that I’ve been working on for a while, but hadn’t figured out how to bring together, is now nearing completion. And it feels so good! It’s like taking back a vital part of my self that’s been lying fallow for far too long. It’s not that I haven’t been writing, but I find that academic writing just doesn’t allow for the same level of free-thinking creativity; it just doesn’t offer the same buzz. And for me, creative work requires quality time that also supports the energy required.

Doe on the front lawn looks into the cottage to watch me knit

I took my writing retreat at the family cottage, a log cabin in the woods on a lake north of Peterborough. I was there for nearly six weeks, which proved to be an optimal amount of time. It was long enough to get good work done, but by the end, I was ready to come home. I also got some fun reading done; I caught up on almost a year’s worth of National Geographic, and read five novels, four of them YA fare. I knitted most of a sweater, noting my long association of writing with knitting. And in spite of the weather, I got out on the lake in my kayak several times.

Sitting on the front lawn, you can see and hear all kinds of birds: ospreys, blue jays, chickadees, scarlet tanagers, hummingbirds, herons, loons, ducks, geese, wild turkeys, crows (few things in nature sound as goofy as an adolescent crow), and woodpeckers. The woods are also full of animals: black and red squirrels, chipmunks, racoons, porcupines, groundhogs, fox, and deer. It’s amazing to see them in the wild, but they tend to disappear on weekends when more people are around and the lake gets noisy.

Pileated Woodpecker’s snack

It’s quiet there. So quiet, that I sleep heavily through the night. So quiet, that you can hear insects, and when a Phoebe snatches one from the air, you can hear her beak snapping shut. The air sometimes has sweet undertones. Sunsets provide amazing light shows, and then the night is truly dark and still.

I feel well rested, relaxed, and more like myself than I have for a really long time. As with all holidays, one tries to hang onto that feeling for as long as possible. I’m back in Toronto, with the teaching term starting, but I’ve scheduled regular writing time, hoping to move forward with some other projects that’ve been on hold. I’ll let you know when I get a publisher lined up!

 

©Catherine Jenkins 2017 all rights reserved

Reflections from Cottage Country

Catherine’s off being a writer in a cabin in the woods. Me? I’m on holiday, so I volunteered to write this month’s post. (Wow. Automatic spellcheck is amazing—especially when you’re not a great typist.) We’ve been here a really long time. It’s rained almost every day, so it’s been perfect for napping.

Even inside, there’s lots to see and do. There are lots of windows, so I can see all kinds of birds. One day, the lilac bush was alive with them! And I’ve seen all kinds of animals outside too! Some of them are about my size, but they look very different. One of them lives under the cottage; I hear her scratching or grunting sometimes. Her whole body is covered with these long sharp-looking spines. Early one morning there was a family of five little animals about my size staring in at us. They sat up on their hind haunches with their front paws hanging down like little hands. There’s an animal that looks a bit like a small dog, but he has the most amazing tail!

And there are these huge animals—bigger than a human! I hear them snorting in the trees. Sometimes they come out though and they’re enormous! One of them had little antlers growing from his head! They’re not very brave though. The smallest movement or noise and they snort and stomp, then run back into the woods.

 

 

 

 

Catherine’s here all the time—well, nearly all the time. It’s great because whenever I get a bit peckish, I ask her for treats; sometimes she complies. When there’s sun, she lets me go outside. She makes me wear this stupid string thing, and won’t let me go under the cottage or into the woods. The other day, I took her around the whole cottage and then down the road. I decided to turn back before the cottage was out of sight; I didn’t want her to get lost.

I’m loving the quiet and the sweet air and the moss for stretching in and the grass for eating and so much to see and experience! And lots of cuddles when it’s cold. I hope the weather gets better so we can go outside more. Not sure when we’ll be home; I’m not the driver!

Signed The Mystery Cat in Black aka Baboo aka Fawkes Jenkins

©Catherine Jenkins 2017 all rights reserved

“Time, time, time…

See what’s become of me” (Simon & Garfunkel 1966). The things one remembers, the things one forgets, in the quick-quick-slow foxtrot of life. Wondering at 30, when the brain feels too full already, how memory can still be possible at 50, but somehow at 50 managing it with ease. And wondering at the selectivity of memories that pop up over and over, when others are forgotten—like the last time I felt truly affronted at being treated like a child. In the hallway of a Spanish hotel, my Dad quickly responding to my choking on a hardboiled sweet going down the wrong way by bodily upending me. The indignity! I was, after all, eight years old, and well past the stage of being picked up by a parent, this stance perhaps embellished by my being surrounded by adults; my parents and older siblings, then about 13 and 15, so adults to an eight-years-old’s mind. This fall, I’ve been reflecting on time quite a bit, and thinking about other writers’ reflections on time too.

I came to Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics only in the last few years, although they were published in Italian in 1964-65, and English in 1968. Each of this series of twelve stories begins with a scientific fact, or at least something understood to be scientific fact in the mid-1960s. Narrated by Qfwfq, a reincarnated Being who morphs from shape to shape, retaining memories from the inception, the stories follow the development of the Universe from the beginning of Time. Although each conscious form is true to its own nature, the stories offer very human reflections on love, complicated relationships, evolution, extinction, the search for signs, writing, and the urge for immortality.

I read physicist Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams when it was published in 1992. Told as a dream diary of the young Albert Einstein as he works out the theory of relativity, each of the thirty brief chapters explores a unique conception of time, and its impact on day-to-day life and being. Similarly to Calvino’s work, Lightman brings scientific concepts into his imagined time conceptions, although some may be pushed beyond their known limits. If time stood still, for instance, parents would forever hold fast to their children; if time were circular, we would be fated to return to our successes and failures ad infinitum.

Most recently, I enjoyed psychiatrist Francois Lelord’s Hector and the Search for Lost Time (2012, translated from the French, Hector et le temp, 2006). I stumbled onto the Hector series after watching Simon Pegg as Hector in the 2014 film, Hector and the Search for Happiness, based on Lelord’s Le voyage d’Hector ou la recherché du bonheur (2002). Hector’s examination of time takes him on an adventurous trek across continents, as did his previous searches for Happiness and Love. While Calvino and Lightman based their imaginative explorations, however loosely, on scientific constructs, Lelord focusses on lived and cultural perceptions of time. Lelord counters our current cultural anxieties about pressured time, our sensed lack of time, with alternative cultural constructs of time that encourage an expansion of our perceptions of time, allowing us to take a breath.

At this time of year, when Father Christmas “Did gyre and gimble in the wabe” (or some such, with apologies to Lewis Carroll, 1872), as we ring in the New Year (at least on the Gregorian calendar, 1582), and “settle our brains for a long winter’s nap” (thank you Clement Clarke Moore, 1822), this is a time of reflection, when memories stir. Tonight, I hope you’ll join me in reflecting on the past, as we move into a bright new future. 2017. Bring it on!

Nearly Midnight

©Catherine Jenkins this last day of 2016 all rights reserved

Creative and Academic Writing: Animals of Different Stripes

I’m a writer and have been for decades. Over that time, I’ve written poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction, non-fiction, a thesis, a dissertation, academic articles, book reviews, reports, case studies, etc. etc. I can switch gears as required, fulfilling the demands of each style and format, but I’m always aware that different types of writing impact me differently, have different working demands, and different after-tastes.

I started in poetry, and am closing in on finishing a new collection. For me, poetry was and always will be the purest, most visceral form of the drug. This is the writing that starts from pure inspiration; it’s a tickle in the back of my brain and I have to hold my breath and gently pull the thread for it to spill out on the page. This is writing that wakes me at three in the morning, that likes me to carry a notebook (the kind with pages, not electronic).  This is the form that brings me the biggest buzz, that unmasks me utterly, that leaves me feeling vulnerable and weak in the knees. But also fiercely able to stand by my words, and to take on the world. This is my tiger form (my Chinese year, by the way).

amazing-tiger-wallpaperIncreasingly, my fiction has a comic edge; I have one book nearly complete and another about a third written. I get in the flow and giddily write pages and pages, slowing only to research often really obscure facts, like what was the world population during Alexander the Great’s reign? This sort of minutiae fascinates me, but when I come up for air, when my critical brain kicks back in, it can seem somewhat ridiculous to be asking such questions and putting in hours to get answers. This is, it would seem, the way my mind works. I’m the curious sort. I get a huge kick from writing fiction, creating self-contained worlds, but somehow making them real by connecting them to reality. This is my young tapir form (kind of goofy, but cute).

baby-tapir

In creative non-fiction, I have one book in process; it’s about my Dad’s death. Whenever I try working on it, I end up weeping full-bodied sobs. I set it aside for years at a time, in the hope that one day I’ll be able to finish it. Because it’s so raw, it’s impossible for me to get any critical distance, to tell whether it’ll be as powerful for a reader as it is for me. At some point, I’ll have to show it to an editor or six who will be able to tell me. Regardless, it is a book I will need to resolve for my own sake. Striped, yes, but more somber and regal, more endangered, like an okapi; or horned, like a bongo or a kudu.okapi

bongokudu-bull1

 

 

 

 

The academic and business writing fall into a similar category in terms of process. This is just work. Purely rational. Although I get very excited about ideas, it’s still somehow seen as inappropriate to express this through academic writing. The odd time when inspiration strikes, when I get into the flow, and become more creative in my word use, some other academic comes along and tells me to knock it off. I am hopeful, that as I gain my professional stripes in the academic world, I’ll be able to get away with more. But this style of writing, using only intellectual process and not creative, is purely black and white. Not that that’s a bad thing, but I don’t get quite the same invigoration from it as I do from the creative work. It takes a lot of time and energy, and doesn’t give as much back. The satisfaction derived is purely intellectual, not emotional.

zebras

When I started my PhD, I felt very schizoid, with my creative side effectively amputated, focussing purely on the academic. As I’ve progressed, I’ve begun to see these two halves reunite. I’m learning how the creative and the intellectual can coalesce quite nicely, how I can write academically appeasing work that also fulfills the creative urge, how I can bring a creative spark to my academic writing. I also think that academic rigour brings a greater depth and richness to the creative work, as well as a necessary sense of discipline. Between the creative and academic work, I have a lot of exciting ideas on the go. Now I just have to create the time to write them all!

Catherine Jenkins 2016 all rights reserved

All images public domain

Update from Dr Jenkins

In the last year, I’ve seen nighttime overhead highway signs cautioning drivers not to stop due to high crime risk, and overhead highway signs cautioning drivers to be aware of moose. And I don’t feel like I’ve done much travel either. I did, however, take my first trip to South Africa. I lost a friend, attended a wedding, helped a friend celebrate his first birthday, and gained a cat. I built cat shelters and traps at Toronto Street Cat, attended a series of Graphic Medicine reading workshops, and went to the first Canadian Writers’ Summit and Taste of Little Italy with my long-time friend and fellow writer, Kathy Mac.  I went to Shaw Fest where the 2015 highlight was Peter and the Starcatcher, and this year’s highlight was Engaged. I went to Stratford for the first time in years, where I saw an amazing production of Shakespeare in Love. I attended a lot of concerts, with tickets both bought and shared by friends. I caught up on a lot of quality TV and some movies I’ve missed on DVDs from the Toronto Public Library. I enjoyed some non-academic reading for a change.

I taught a lot (and I mean a lot) of students, did a lot of grading, and had the joy of watching a few of my students gain awards or entry into grad school. I presented papers at conferences in Kingston (Queens) and North Bay (Nippising). I submitted a few things to peer-reviewed journals. I defend my PhD dissertation and convocated, so now it’s official and school truly is out.

This last year I breathed out, I walked, I observed, I took photos, I pondered, I cottaged. This fall, I’ve signed up for a wine course and an Italian course, because I finally can. I’m back to working out and I’m decluttering my apartment. I’m writing inventive academic work and applying to conferences in more exotic locales. And I’ve got six non-academic book projects to pick up again, now that I actually have the time and energy and focus. Stay tuned…