Category Archives: Reflection

Striking a Healthy Balance

When you’re a self-employed, work-from-home individual, establishing and maintaining professional discipline is crucial to being productive. When you can stay up as late as you want, sleep in to your heart’s content, eat at your leisure, take naps whenever you’re even the least bit tired, and choose to watch TV in place of work with nobody looking over your shoulder… well, it doesn’t take long before you’re living in complete squalor/chaos.

At some point, you have to get up and make the bed, put down the remote, and plunk yourself down in your office chair. In short, you have to force yourself to get shit done. There are all kinds of strategies to do this, and you’ll be hearing much about that subject this month. Back in January, we started the conversation about setting goals for the year. Well, guess what? Here we are, nearly at the midway point, and it’s time to check in and see how we’re doing.

But today’s post isn’t about progress bars and project checklists. I’m not here to espouse productivity tips. I’m here to talk about something quite a bit more personal.

Where to start? How about this: I’m a big guy. Well, maybe I’m being a bit too delicate. I’m fat. There, I said it. It’s true. I’m not proud of this. (I’m also not particularly ashamed, but that’s another subject entirely.)

My point is this. It’s one thing to make myself sit down in my office chair for long stretches of the day to both take care of my professional commitments and write enough new words on a regular basis to keep afloat my burgeoning career as an author. It’s another thing to recognize that I also need to make myself get out of that chair for long enough periods of time to keep my productivity high and my health in check. Add to this a couple of medical problems that make substantial physical exercise difficult to maintain for long periods of time, and you see just how tough a balancing act it is to pull off.

Writing and editing are extremely sedentary activities. I was never exactly slim, but back when I was going to college and waiting tables, I didn’t have much trouble regulating my weight and overall physical well-being. My lifestyle was active enough that I simply didn’t have to worry about finding time to exercise. Now? Well, now I basically have no reason to leave my house for half of my workweek, and that’s a problem.

There was a time when I could embark on a 45-minute-walk every day, eat a few more salads, and get by. But then, about five years ago, this came to a sudden end when I began to suffer the effects of a still-undiagnosed medical condition which makes it difficult to impossible for me to bear any weight on my feet for days at a time on a completely random schedule. I’ve certainly found some truth in the old adage that when it comes to exercise, habit leads to ease; in other words, when you do something every day, the momentum of that schedule takes over, making it easier all the time to get off your butt. But when you come to a screeching halt every few weeks and basically don’t have the luxury of moving? Let’s just say it’s hard to stay motivated.

And yet it’s so important for people in our line of work to set realistic (and even ambitious) health goals. I won’t use this space to recommend any particular diet or exercise regimen, since everyone’s recipe for success is highly individual. I do, however, want to start the conversation. We all need to constantly strive for a healthy balance of work, exercise, and diet. Right now, my goal is to get in thirty minutes of moderate walking every day, except on days when walking is impossible—and I have a food plan that kicks up to a level of higher intensity during periods of low exertion to compensate for burning fewer than desired calories.

Let’s talk more about our health goals, and how we get around our sedentary tendencies. See you in the comments!

They Do Things Differently There

A guest post by Amy Groening.

they do things differently thereMy family unearthed They Do Things Differently There (Jan Mark, 1994) at a library book sale when I was twelve years old. We had been consuming Jan Mark books for years and were very excited to discover a relatively new book of his shoved in amongst the clutter of salable discards. Every Jan Mark book I have read has endowed me with some new discovery of how to both play with the English language and appreciate life in general, but They Do Things Differently There was a crown jewel when I was young, and now, thirteen years later, I appreciate it all the more.

The account of a beautiful yet fleeting friendship between two dizzyingly creative teenaged girls, They Do Things Differently There offers clever descriptions of the realities of growing up in small-town Britain, a sardonic criticism of insincere aestheticism, and, most importantly, periodic vignettes of the deeper and much more bizarre episodes of an alternate reality, showing through in patches where the veneer of clean living has worn through.

I’m not talking about Blue Velvet, severed-ears-in-the-backwoods-type double lives; I’m quite sure Elaine and Charlotte would have balked at a crime so underwhelmingly average. Beneath the flowery, scrubbed-clean town of Compton Rosehay lurks Stalemate, a half-forgotten city that boasts a mermaid factory, a corpse-collecting manor lord and the respectable bunch of blackmailers keeping him in check, missionaries from Mars, and the Nobel Prize-winning creation of the Auger Scale of Tedium.

As ridiculous as the world of Stalemate sounds, Jan Mark uses these elements to create an effortlessly bizarre, unapologetically irreverent, and thoroughly enjoyable reading experience. It wasn’t until this year that I noticed the underlying references to pop culture and highbrow art that riddled the work. When I was twelve, mentions of Daleks flew right over my head, and I was under the impression that Mark’s cheeky rewriting of Wordsworth­’s verse—Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/But to be a fish was very heaven—was, in fact, just a clever bit of writing she had come up with herself. Even the book’s title is pulled straight from The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley. When Charlotte breaks the fourth wall and admits they’ve missed half a story because two pages of the book got stuck together, I was practically in convulsions of wonder. While I have now become accustomed to viewing this as a favourite trick of postmodern writing, back then it was the most mind-bogglingly clever writing twist I had come across.

This is one of the many things I love about Jan Mark: she created stories that I could enjoy as an uncultured preteen, and yet she didn’t seem to concern herself with the idea that a twelve-year-old might not catch references to high-brow literature (or British sci-fi shows from the 1960s). She didn’t pander to the lowest common denominator of undereducated schoolchildren, and yet she wrote books that said schoolchildren could still enjoy. I truly believe she wrote for a juvenile audience not because it was easier, as many people seem to think, but because it allowed her to freely exercise her complex, zany, and joyful yet melancholy writing style.

That being said, her novels do address serious matters—They Do Things Differently There is chock-full of loneliness, desperation, and the pain of being a social outcast. The stress of growing up, the terrifying powerlessness of childhood, the cruelty of adolescent alliances, and the dangers of depression come up in many of her stories.

Jan Mark was a prolific and well-respected British writer. When she passed away in 2006, she had published over fifty novels, plays, and short story anthologies, and had won the Carnegie medal twice, and yet the majority of her books are tragically difficult to come by.

When my family discovered They Do Things Differently There, it was out of print, as were Nothing to Be Afraid Of, a book of short stories we seemed to check out of the library several times a year, and Hairs in the Palm of the Hand, a book we finally procured a battered old copy of, which my sister still does dramatic readings of every Christmas. I have often wondered how a collection of books could be so principle in shaping my adolescence and my own writing aspirations, and yet so underappreciated, at least by a North American public.

For the longest time, I was under the impression we were the only Canadians who knew about these books. I was almost disappointed when They Do Things Differently There went back into print, assuming it meant Jan Mark was going to sweep North America and become a household name instead of a much-loved secret.

However, I still haven’t met any Mark fans who were not blood relations of mine; a quick visit to Amazon reveals not a single comment has been left on the They Do Things Differently There page, few ratings have been given, and while she does have a loyal fan base and blog articles devoted to singing the praises of her writing, her books are clearly still not being given the attention they so richly deserve.

Guest Writer Bio:
amy groeningAmy Groening is a publishing assistant at Word Alive Press. She is a passionate storyteller with experience in blogging, newspaper reportage, and creative writing. She holds an Honours degree in English Literature and is happy to be working in an industry where she can see other writers’ dreams come to life. She enjoys many creative pursuits, including sewing, sculpture, and painting, and spends an embarrassingly large amount of time at home taking photos of her cats committing random acts of feline crime.

Welcome to Macdonald Hall

this cant be happeningEast of Toronto, just off Highway 48, you will find a beautiful tree-lined campus right across the road from the famous Miss Scrimmage’s Finishing School for Young Ladies. It is Macdonald Hall, where generations of boys have been educated and prepared for manhood. Named for Sir John A. Macdonald, the Hall, with its ivy-covered stone buildings and beautiful rolling lawns, is the most respected boarding school for boys in all of Canada.

Okay, so here’s how the story goes. While in the seventh grade, Gordon Korman’s English teacher (“Mr. Hamilton,” according to Wikipedia, and the first book’s dedication) assigned his students to write a short novel. Putting aside how ambitious and insane such an assignment would be, the result was Korman’s very first attempt at a novel—This Can’t Be Happening at Macdonald Hall—which was subsequently published in 1978 by Scholastic Books. Korman was only twelve years old when he wrote it, and fourteen when it got published.

Hold the phone. Did you catch that? He was twelve and got published on his first attempt. Is anybody else feeling inadequate? I sure am. By the time of his graduation from high school, Korman had written another five books. Holy crow. Eighty-five books later, here we are, in 2014, and I’m going all the way back to the beginning of Korman’s career to tell you about a series of young adult novels that absolutely changed my life—the Macdonald Hall series, alternatively known as “Bruno and Boots,” for the two protagonists.

These books flood me with overwhelming nostalgia. When Greg Little announced that this month would be dedicated to unknown books, I knew immediately that I had to write about Macdonald Hall. I subsequently jumped onto my Kindle, eager to buy ebook editions of all seven books in the series. Well, guess what? They’re not there. I couldn’t believe it.

zucchini warriorsFortunately, I had five of the seven books (along with a bunch of other favourite Korman reads) in an old box in my storage room that I hadn’t opened in a few years. I began to devour them.

I realize I’ve now written some three hundred words and haven’t managed to say anything about the books except “They’re awesome; no, seriously, they’re really that awesome.” Which makes for a pretty lousy endorsement, so here are some details.

I began this post with the first paragraph from Korman’s premiere novel, and it sets the stage for all the hijinks that follow. The setting is Macdonald Hall, a boarding school on the outskirts of Toronto, and just across the street is an accompanying boarding school for girls, Miss Scrimmage’s Finishing School for Young Ladies, an ironic and misleadingly quaint name. Indeed, these unruly girls figure prominently into each story, and they are beyond delightful—and nowhere near “finished.”

The titular characters, Bruno and Boots, are roommates in Dormitory 3, Room 306—a.k.a. central headquarters for a lot of shenanigans. Bruno Walton is a passionate troublemaker with a penchant for letting (nay, encouraging) his many elaborate schemes get out of control. Boots O’Neal is the classic straight man, a sidekick who frequently gets drawn into his best friend’s intrigues. In the course of these books, they plot the downfall of a hated new school administrator (The War with Mr. Wizzle, my personal favourite of the novels), the stratospheric rise and inevitable collapse of the Hall’s football team (The Zucchini Warriors, which presents some surprisingly interesting commentary on gender politics), the fundraising effort for a new swimming pool to avoid Boots being transferred to a new school (Go Jump in the Pool), the undermining of a Justin Bieber-like celebrity on campus to shoot a major motion picture (Macdonald Hall Goes Hollywood), among other memorable outings.

The friendships and recurring characters are beautifully developed over the progression of the series, and the prose is sophisticated enough to make me stare at the page in disbelief that a twelve-year-old could have had a hand in crafting it. As an eight-year-old reader, I fell in love with Bruno and Boots and their many cohorts. Yes, they were constantly in trouble, but they were almost always driven by noble goals. They were good kids. Flawed? Of course, but never beyond redemption.

macdonald hall goes hollywoodAnd that leads me to the thing I appreciate most about the series. I’ve reread the series twice in my twenties, and I’m in the middle of a third reread now. No surprisingly, I appreciate different things as a thirty-one-year-old than I did when I was eight. Back then, it was clear that the overarching antagonist of the series was Macdonald Hall’s stern but fair headmaster, Theodore Sturgeon (a.k.a. “The Fish”). In the character of Sturgeon, we are confronted with the heart of the series. He’s depicted as a middle-aged man with zero humor and a serious disposition—that is, as far as the boys know. In private, Korman shows us a kind and warm-hearted molder of men, not unlike the beloved Coach Taylor from Friday Night Lights. Sturgeon isn’t the antagonist all the kids at the school think he is. The reality is that he loves and cares for his students, and he has a secret affection particularly for Bruno and Boots—not despite their troublemaking ways, but because of them.

I don’t have kids, and I probably never will, barring unforeseen developments in my life. I’m okay with this reality, and it normally doesn’t bother me. The only time it does bother me is when I think of these Macdonald Hall books, and I’m filled with sadness that I don’t have anyone to pass them on to. Fortunately, my niece and nephew are about to come into reading age. Hopefully my sister won’t mind if I drop by the house each evening before bedtime to read a few chapters.

Anti-heroes Actually Work Sometimes

WaylanderI was an avid reader as long as I can remember, from reading The Hobbit in 3rd grade to reading so much in middle school that my teachers started confiscating my books. I devoured everything I could get my hands on, and that love of reading helped spark my interest in writing down my own stories.

When I think back to stories I really loved, ones that perhaps are not so well known and yet are still ones that powerfully impacted me, one novel immediately popped into my head:  Waylander by David Gemmell.

I picked up this novel in a bookstore in Sydney, Australia in 1990 and it sucked me in even though up to that point I preferred more traditional heroes. Most of the time I’ve found that authors just could not pull off a successful deeply flawed anti-hero. They usually came across as unbelievable, or depressing, or just plain uninspiring, so I was surprised to get so deeply sucked into Waylander.

Waylander, the main protagonist, is a ruthless, heartless killer who embraced anger and thirst for revenge when his family was murdered many years ago, and who seems to have lost any chance of ever feeling joy again. And yet the story depicts with a deft touch his journey toward redemption, his reluctant shift back across the line to hero.

What really makes the story work however is the supporting cast of characters, all of whom carry significant flaws, and all of whom face their own very real arcs of growth within the story. I think this was the first book that coupled a great anti-hero with complex supporting characters and opened the door for me to see there is so much more that can be done than many authors I had read bothered to do.

  • First there’s Dardalion, the oh-so-pure priest who sacrifices some of his own self-assured goodness helping Waylander and earns a bit of grit in return.
  • Then there’s Danyal, a woman who faces the destruction of her homeland with courage, a survivor who possesses the raw will to live, the courage to withstand whatever tragedies might strike. Together, she and Waylander might provide the missing element in each others lives, but do they dare risk opening their hearts to allow affection to grow?

Other characters proved just as fascinating, but you can read the book to learn about them.  The story also included some great twists like:

– Can the assassin who murdered the king and pushed the kingdom to the brink of collapse under the weight of invading armies really be trusted to secure the one weapon powerful enough to turn the tide?
– What happens to a villain when offered a chance to be a hero for a change?
– How will an assassin respond when his quarry neither flees nor turns to fight?
– How do you defeat werewolves who will starve to death unless they eat the flesh of their appointed victim?

It’s not the best book ever written, but I loved it.  It contained plenty of depth to open a few doors to a teenager just beginning to explore writing his own stories. For that, I’ll always consider this book an all-time favorite.

It’s funny, I never even knew the author had written other books in the series until I looked this one up recently to buy another copy.  I might just have to read the sequels, and I definitely plan to re-read Waylander again very soon.

It’s great to visit old friends sometimes.