Six Writing Tips I Learned from Gord Downie.

I’ve never met Gord Downie. Never even been to a Tragically Hip concert. But watching Gord weave his magic at the band’s last concert in August–where, by some alchemy of love and creative energy, he gave it more than he had–made me want to give him something in return.

As a writer all I have is words, but words have power. When I taught school, the best gift I ever received was a thank you note. So to Gord Downie, who has been a teacher to thousands without ever stepping into a classroom, I want to say, “Thanks for making me a better writer.”

Because besides being a courageous soul who sings his heart out, Gord Downie is a gifted writer. His lyrics resonate with that giant ball of hopes and dreams and fears we call the human condition.

Take the song “Bobcaygeon” for instance. Gord manages to create a short story in four simple verses. Brilliant. We should all take notes. Here are six key lessons I learned:

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       1. Start in the middle of things. The song opens with a man leaving someone’s house. Whose house? He doesn’t say. Why is the time important?   We don’t know. Hmmm, a mystery. He feels guilty about something, though, because he starts making excuses: “Could have been the Willie Nelson, Could have been the wine.”

       2. Introduce the Main Character, but only Key Details. We know what our protagonist listens to, what he drinks, and his habit of making excuses. (That’s more important than what he looks like, in my opinion.) Notice there’s no backstory, just action and inner dialogue. That’s how it should be.

        3.  Show don’t tell, especially when it comes to emotion. The first verse ends with this gem: “I saw the constellations reveal themselves one star at a time.” Ah. We’ve all read enough Shakespeare to know that a man staring at the stars is in love. Note that love isn’t mentioned. Love is abstract–talking about abstract concepts doesn’t make us feel anything. The image of a man staring at the stars does.

         4. Don’t stop the action to create setting and mood. In the next verse the mood changes. No more stargazing, no more Bobcaygeon–our main character goes back to bed, pulling down the blind on a sky that’s “dull, and hypothetical and falling one cloud at a time.” Talk about a downer. Once again, there is no direct mention of emotion. Instead we sense the mood through his simple act of pulling down the blind.

        5. Don’t get bogged down with description. When it comes to description my motto is “Leave out the boring bits.” Gord has that down to a fine art. In verse three we find ourselves in Toronto. Our main character is riding horseback, keeping order during a demonstration. Or maybe a riot. Clearly he’s a policeman. A picture forms in our heads–no description necessary. There’s a confusing mix of images–a checkboard floor, a mic, Aryan voices. It’s a jumbled mess, which is exactly what a riot would be.

        6. Have the ending reflect the beginning, but with a change. In the last verse we’re back in Bobcaygeon. Same time, same place–with a change. Our main character owns his feelings now: “Couldn’t get you off my mind.” He’s braver, bolder, no excuses. Once again, Gord doesn’t tell us this; he shows us through his character’s actions. Why does he remind us of the constellations at the end? Perhaps to reinforce the setting and the emotion. After all, this is a love song. Or perhaps to leave us with one iconic Canadian image–the northern sky at night.

Gord Downie was once quoted as saying “A great song’s greatest attribute is how it hints at more.” Do the same with your writing.



Seven Residential School Reads for Canadian Classrooms

I made a promise to myself after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report came out last year: to educate myself about Canada’s shameful history of broken treaties and residential schools. Since then I’ve been reading everything I can find on the subject–including fiction, because that’s my favourite way to learn. For me, history comes to life when I experience it through the eyes and heart of a true-to-life character.

If you are searching for classroom material on residential schools or on Canada’s history of injustice towards First Nations peoples, here are my top picks.

Primary Grades

HIDDEN BUFFALO by Rudy Wiebe, illustrated by Michael Lonechild

Stunning illustrations and a strong literary voice bring to life the story of Sky Running, a young Cree boy searching for 0889953341the buffalo his family needs in order to survive the coming winter. This deceptively simple prose is rich with lessons on both native life and story structure. The vivid artwork illustrates many aspects of Cree culture. Though not about residential schools, I had to include it because of the brilliant artwork and the story it tells of a tradition that is dying because of colonization. Wiebe is an award-winning Alberta writer. Michael Lonechild is a celebrated artist from White Bear Reserve, Saskatchewan.

WHEN I WAS EIGHT by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiac-Fenton, illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard

Olemaun, an eight-year-old girl who lives in the Arctic, knows many things, but she doesn’t know how to read. She convinces her father to let her leave home to attend the “outsiders’ school,” but when she arrives she is treated cruelly. Her long braids are cut off, her warm clothing is replaced by thin, scratchy cloth, and she is forced to perform menial chores. Illustrator Grimard’s paintings stretch across the pages showing a child’s perspective, and the first-person writing brings Olemaun, renamed Margaret, to life. Based on the true experiences of  Margaret Pokiac-Fenton.

Junior Grades

AS LONG AS THE RIVERS FLOW by Larry Loyie with Constance Brissenden, illustrated by Heather Holmlund

Based on personal experience, Loyie tells the story of his last summer near Slave Lake, Alberta, before being forced to attend a residential school hundreds of miles away. We see the world through Lawrence’s eyes, from the humorous antics of Ooh-hoo, an adopted orphaned owl, to his face-to-face experience with an enormous grizzly bear. These incidents, and Heather Holmlund’s detailed watercolours, show us the beauty and freedom of a way of life and make the eventual separation all the more heart-wrenching.

RED WOLF by Jennifer Dance

By the late 1800’s, white settlers have penetrated deep into Algonquin territory, forcing both Native people and 943074afd388b66cf6a3cf44159c6473wolves from the land. When Red Wolf, a young Anishnaabek boy, finds Crooked Ear, an orphaned wolf,  he wants to adopt it. But his father says no. Under the Indian Act, Red Wolf must go to a residential school and his family must live on a reservation far away. The story alternates between the POV of the wolf and the boy, giving it an added appeal. But this isn’t a feel-good story about a boy and his pet. It refuses to minimize the violence of the residential school experience, and the opening scene portrays an act of cruelty that will make you squirm. Teachers will want to address these issues before students read this novel.

Intermediate Grades

SUGAR FALLS by David Alexander Robertson, illustrated by Scott B. Henderson

This graphic novel tells the true story of Betty Ross, an elder the Cross Lake First Nation. Betsy is from a loving family, but she must attend residential school according to the law. Before she leaves her father takes her to Sugar Falls, to listen to the drumbeat of the land and water and feel its strength inside her. He makes her promise to remember that strength no matter what happens at the school. This promise sustains Betsy through acts of cruelty, the suicide of a friend, and sexual abuse. Though the sexual abuse is not retold in detail, several acts of violence are depicted in vivid illustrations. Discussions about abuse and suicide are recommended as prerequisites to using this book in the classroom.

BLOOD UPON OUR LAND, the North-West Resistance Diary of Josephine Bouvier, 1885, by Maxine Trottier

The New Year of 1885 begins as it always does, with a party of dancing and fiddle music and food. It was the most exciting thing that ever happened in Batoche, according to Josephine Bouvier, a young Metis girl. But changes come quickly. Papa, a widower, marries the widow Louise Pepin, and Louis Riel arrives in Batoche. The Metis demand compensation for lands taken from them, and when the government refuses, violence erupts. Soldiers are sent in and soon Josephine’s father and brother are off to fight. Though the violence is less explicit in this story, we feel the injustice of the way the Metis people are treated.

THE LYNCHING OF LOUIE SAM, by Elizabeth Stewart

thWhen fifteen-year-old George Gillies finds the body of a murdered man in a cabin in Noosack Valley, Washington Territory, rumours begin to swirl. Soon the uneasy relations between settlers and Native people are enflamed. Caught in the frenzy, George and his friend Pete follow the lynch mob north into Canada, on the trail of Louie Sam, a 14-year-old Sto:lo boy suspected of the murder. Told from the point of view of George, we feel his shock as he witnesses an act of unspeakable violence and injustice. Though George Gillies and his family are fictional, this novel is based on the true story of Louie Sam. Depicting the brutality of racism and the dangers of mob rule, it makes a good vehicle for discussion on how to stand up for what you believe, even when it means losing your friends.






Five writing secrets I learned from my cat

ImageIf my cats, Jack and Suzy, wrote a book, it would be a bestseller. They have an intuitive understanding of plot (cat wants food and will do anything to get it) a therapist’s grasp of character (how to wake sleeping humans at 5 am) and a willingness to explore any setting (how did they get in there?)

Here are five writing lessons I learned from my felines:

  1. Never underestimate the power of a nap. What do my cats and Paul McCartney have in common? They both know that sleep fuels creativity. You may not dream a bestselling song but you can increase your creativity by keeping a notebook beside your bed. Write in it as soon as you awake. Scraps of dreams, snippets of dialogue, plot twists. Lyrics even. You never know.
  2. Be persistent. Whether it’s searching for treats, getting my attention or catching anything that moves, my cats never give up. They focus on that buzzing fly until their mission is complete. Writing a novel requires a similar level of persistence. Keep at it, even if it is only a paragraph a day. Ignore social media and that messy kitchen. Write.
  3. Train your Family. Let’s face it: our pets have us trained. We know when they expect to eat, go outside, or have their ears rubbed. Train your housemates to respect your writing time. Make it clear that you can only be disturbed in emergencies—bleeding, broken bones and serious nervous breakdowns.
  4. Explore.  Develop the curiosity of a cat. Poke your nose in other people’s business. Ask your elderly Aunt Matilda about dating in the 1930s. Ask your work colleague about her pet pig. Ask a librarian anything. (Librarians have Wikipedia beat.)
  5. Develop a sense of play. When your writing is in a rut, shake up your routine. Get up and stretch—cats do it all the time. Take a different route to work or explore a new neighbourhood. Stare at a tree–they provide both oxygen and inspiration. Stroll to your favourite coffee shop and free write about the people around you. If you usually write novels, try writing a poem, a short story or a love letter. Do something unpredictable. Write like a cat.

Leave out the Boring Bits!

Up until Grade 8, history class had been a snoozefest. We drew maps of places I’d never heard of (Rupert’s Land?) and memorized facts about long-ago battles led by men wearing silly white wigs.

Here are some examples of what I mean:


Then one day my history teacher talked about a rebellion that took place in Upper Canada in 1837. She told us funny stories about the rebel leader, William Lyon Mackenzie. He wore a red wig because he’d lost his hair due to a childhood disease, layered two coats when he went to the battlefield (as protection against musket balls) and disguised himself as a woman to escape the authorities.

Weird? Maybe. But he also believed in democracy, fought for the underdog and stood up to the government because it favoured the wealthy.

History came alive for me that day. William Lyon Mackenzie wasn’t some far distant hero galloping across long ago battle fields. He was a newspaper publisher who devoted his life to making Canada a better place. He looked funny and did some odd things, but he had the courage to stand up for those who couldn’t speak for themselves.

History is about conflict. Stories are too. Conflict can be wars and political battles, but it’s also physical challenges such as crossing rugged mountains and raging rivers, or battling the weather: freezing cold, floods, or a drought that leads to starvation. All of these things affect real people who have hopes and desires, strengths and weaknesses.

When I write historical fiction I skip facts like dates and battles and treaties. (I think I just heard my Grade 8 history teacher gasp).

Instead I search for the story and the characters that make it come alive. Usually this is about one person wanting something that someone else won’t let him have. Once I have a character and a conflict, I have the beginning of a story.



Where Do I Get My Ideas?

Ideas pop up anywhere and anytime.

While I weed my vegetable garden:


When I hike the Bruce Trail:

Doing Yoga with my cat Jack:

Or exploring local waterfalls.