Illiterate in 3 languages…all English

canadianEnglish

“That which we call a rose, would by any other name, smell…”

William Shakespeare, Bad Line Break theatre

As many of you know (or have quickly surmised), I am Canadian, and more specifically, Anglo Canadian. Unto itself, that’s a pretty cushy thing to be in this country.

In choosing to live as a writer, however, I added an otherwise unnecessary twist to my life—I forced myself to learn English as a second language.

Wait. Didn’t you just self-identify as an English-speaking Canadian?

Yes, I did. But I’m a Canadian English-speaking Canadian.

And one of the first things you realize when you become a Canadian writer is that you will probably starve for lack of work.

Now, I’m not knocking Canadian writing, whether fiction, for film and television, journalism, what have you. It is easily some of the most beautiful writing available in the English world. But it is often written to (if not for) an incredibly small market, and opportunities to succeed are therefore often few and far between.

If feels like 8 writers encompass the entire Canadian television landscape. And name a Canadian movie. (I’ll wait.)

Nope and nope.

Nope and nope.

Okay, now name one not directed by David Cronenberg or Denys Arcand.

I was once offered a job as the Editor of a Canadian biotech magazine—yes, I used to be even more nerdy—for $30kpa. And yet, already on my resume was a job working for an American biotech mag that started around $65kpa.

Bottom line is thank goodness for my passion to write, because my passion for money has taken a beating.

(Side note: This was a choice I made and for which I take full responsibility. I don’t mean this to be a “life is so unfair” rant.)

What this has meant, therefore, is that to make it as a writer, I have had to learn English as a second language. In this case, American English.

Recently, the BBC published a short article that tried to explain Canadian English within the context of its British and American counterparts. Rightly, the author noted that the differences were more than a matter of spelling (e.g., centre v center; honor v honour). Rather, the differences also manifested in idioms, speech patterns and word choice.

As long as everyone's having fun

As long as everyone’s having fun

As with most Canadians, I had a bit of a leg up on learning American as our proximity to the border (mere kilometres and even fewer miles) means we are inundated daily by American film and television programming. But I also had the additional benefit of having been married to an American, and a Southerner to boot (more on “boots” later).

Where I would recommend taking the 401 across north Toronto, Leela would suggest taking 66 from Fairfax into Washington. Luckily, we were both practical enough to set aside arguments about whether we needed to go to hospital or the hospital.

All this to say that although the differences between Canadian English and American English can be subtle, they can easily explode before the eyes of the unsuspecting.

Writing for an American biotech magazine and working with American editors was something of an ESL boot camp. And over the intervening 15 years, I like to think I honed my American skills to the point where you suspect I am from Minnesota or Western New York (hello, North Tonawanda).

In fact, I’m going to rely heavily on my multi-Angloism as most of my writing, whether for money or in my screen- and novel writing, is aimed at American audiences. And although my primary goal remains writing the best story, my secondary goal is writing it in the most innocuous way. I don’t want my writing to “read” Canadian.

Versus

Truth be told, I don’t want my writing per se to be noticeable at all. If it is, I’ve taken the reader out of the story.

This is not to say that I want my stories to be bland, but rather that I want all of the art to be in the story itself, rather than the more mechanical aspects.

In my Canadian stories (so far a sitcom pilot and screenplay), which are set in Canada, involve Canadians and target Canadian audiences, I write Canadian. For pretty much everything else, I write American.

Should I start targeting British audiences, then I’ll spend more time learning British English, and make fewer spelling changes.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to bounce back and forth between the multiple Englishes like a character out of Monty Python.

What’s it aboot?

Anyone can make fun of how Canadians communicate (or don’t). Goodness knows Canadians do. But I have to admit that I struggle with the whole “oot and aboot” phrasing that American audiences in particular seem to see as a Canadian phrase.

It’s not that I think we pronounce these words correctly so much as we don’t say “oot”. Rather, we say “oat”.

As I mentioned, I was married to a Southerner, and one day, we had a lengthy conversation about the word “South”. Try as she might, Leela could not get me to pronounce the “ou” without it taking on a surreal emphasis akin to “owwwwwww”.

Instead, I would say “Soath”. And instead of “about”, I would say “aboat”. And as I made a point of listening closely to Anglo-Canadians speak, I never heard a single one say “aboot”. It was always “aboat”.

That being stated, I will totally cop to “eh”. It’s us. End of story.

Agenda journalism – Wendy Mesley v Jon Stewart

One of these people is a "serious journalist" (Wendy Mesley; Jon Stewart)

One of these people is a “serious journalist” (Wendy Mesley; Jon Stewart)

As I practice the art of writing (e.g., novels, screenplays), I pay my bills by writing for the pharmaceutical trade publication DDNews. I consider myself more of an essayist and commentator more than a journalist, mainly because I have too much respect for journalists and the tightrope they walk balancing the need to produce a story and discover a story.

With that respect, however, comes a certain level of expectation, and in too many high-profile cases, those expectations are not being met.

The most recent case for me (and the prompt for this post) was an interview between CBC journalist and anchor Wendy Mesley and film director and host of The Daily Show Jon Stewart, who appeared on CBC’s The National on November 14.

CBC The National interview with Jon Stewart (Nov 14) (video)

The interview used as evidence Bahari worked with spies

The interview used as evidence Bahari worked with spies (Jason Jones, Maziar Bahari)

Ostensibly, the interview was meant to discuss Stewart’s new movie Rosewater  (trailer at bottom) and the events that led to the incarceration of journalist Maziar Bahari in Iran, the interrogation of whom involved video of Bahari’s discussions with a The Daily Show correspondent Jason Jones.

Ironically, the interview became an attempted interrogation of Stewart on his culpability in Bahari’s incarceration and torture, and the broader question of satire feeding the flames of fanaticism.

To his credit, while dismissing the questions as ridiculous, Stewart responded to them with logic and tried to look at the bigger picture. Mesley, however, could not be shaken from her belief that there must be guilt and culpability.

This is where I take issue.

Although I believe it is important for a journalist to know what she wants to talk about when interviewing someone, I also believe it is beholden on the journalist to let the conversation happen and see where it goes.

When I interview someone for one of my news articles, I start with a list of questions based on my research of the topic and the person/organization being interviewed. Going in, I have an agenda.

But when the interview starts, most of those questions fall by the wayside and are replaced by bigger, more important discussions that I didn’t foresee. In short, I listen to what the interviewee has to tell me and then adjust the conversation.

I completely understand that if someone is being evasive on a topic, a journalist may want to harder press a specific topic or series of questions, but in the Stewart interview, there was no evasion. He simply did not give the answers Mesley wanted, and she refused to accept them, as she is wont on many pieces throughout her years with the CBC.

Delightfully, toward the end of their conversation, Stewart called her on this, accusing her of not believing anything he said. She clearly did not do her homework on him, because she was uncomfortable with his challenge.

Sadly, this meant that the interview became about the interview and not the subjects that might have been vastly more interesting and were decidedly more important: political fanaticism, satire as a weapon, the erosion of journalism (ironically), human endurance.

An opportunity for insightful exchange was largely missed (Stewart did his best to talk about these things).

For anyone who thinks you might be interviewed at some point in your lifetime, study Stewart’s approach to this interview and any other.

For anyone who thinks you might become a journalist, study Mesley’s approach to this interview and pull a Costanza…do the opposite.

There are too many important issues to be discussed in the news to have the conversation high-jacked by a faulty agenda.

In the meantime, if Mesley wants to be an editorialist or commentator, do so. The CBC has several (e.g., Rex Murphy).

 

PS Some might argue that because I work for a trade publication, my questions are apt to be softball as the publication’s agenda is to suck up to the industry. One: I call bullshit. And two: read my stuff.

Happier times well after the events of Rosewater

Happier times well after the events of Rosewater (Jason Jones, Maziar Bahari)

See also:

The job you hate is killing your creative spirit

The wonderful Grant and his weasel buddy join me for a post-show photo (also shown Peggy Etra and Brian Clark).

The wonderful Grant and his weasel buddy join me for a post-show photo (also shown Peggy Etra and Brian Clark).

Grant Baciocco is an amazingly talented actor and puppeteer I had the good fortune to meet online and then in person when he came to Toronto with the improv puppetry show PuppetUp! (about which I have raved extensively elsewhere).

Well, aside from his amazing talent, he also has a wonderful creative spirit, both in the sense of what he creates and how he tries to inspire others to be open to their own inner creative spirit. To this latter point, he has a wonderful blog Grantblog: Ruminations & Pomposity that I heartily recommend.

At the beginning of each week, he posts Creative Mondays and today was no exception. Today he talked about “A job you hate”, which I excerpt below:

For years after college, about ten in fact, I worked as a substitute teacher.  It was an okay job, certainly flexible enough and I was making money, but by the end of those ten years I was starting to burn out because it was not the job I wanted to be doing.  I was good at it and several times I was told I should get my teaching credential because I was such a good teacher.  But deep inside of me I could feel a darkness building up because I was doing a job I absolutely hated.

The moment I made the decision to stop subbing and focus on The Radio Adventures of Dr. Floyd, it felt like a weight was instantly lifted from my chest.  I attempted, for the millionth time, to lose weight and it was actually working (lost 80 pounds).  I was just a million times happier than I was when I was subbing.  And guess what?  I became more creative!  This was the creative boom era for Dr. Floyd, because I was doing something I love.

Grant’s is a lesson too many of us learn very late in life (NOTE: I did not say “too late in life”…it is NEVER too late).

In my case, I was fortunate enough to have a series of occupations I loved for a period…scientist, science writer, media relations, advertising copywriter…but with each, I stayed in the occupation long after I had fallen out of love with the choice. I had to be a certain amount of miserable before I was brave enough to jump.

But two years ago, I completely jumped ship to pursue my true love: story telling (screenplays, novel, sketches, short stories). I’m still not making money off any of this, so I live on freelance magazine writing and ad copywriting. But to Tiffany’s point, it is what I do to eat and sleep under a roof.

If you are fortunate to know your passion—it can take time to figure out what it is—then you must make it happen to find happiness (hunh, “happen” and “happiness”…so similar).

And if you haven’t fully defined your passion yet, go with your gut until you do. Explore the universe of opportunities, until you do. You may not end up the financially richest person on the planet, but you’ll definitely be one of the spiritually richest.

If you don’t want to take it from me, then take it from Grant. Find your happiness and pursue it with everything you have. Despite appearances, you really do have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

 

You can follow Grant on Twitter: @ToasterBoy

We shall overcome if it kills us (and it will)

That way

Friends and family hate walking up hills with me. I have no idea how they feel about the flat regions, but definitely the hills they hate. And it’s not that they are out of shape. To the contrary, I am the excessively shaped one…and I’m lazy.

Thus, when I reach the bottom of a hill, I want to get the climb over with as quickly as possible…I power my way up the hill, leaving them to trot along or simply do their own thing and catch up with me.

But the biggest challenge, once they catch up, is that they then have to wait for me to recover from my exertion. In my zeal to get to the top, I completely ignore the fact that the trip is not over once I reach the top…I leave nothing in my tank for the rest of the trip.

I’ve done the same whenever I’ve decided to change my shape with exercise or diet. I start out incredibly aggressively…not holds barred. And for a week or two, my goals are not only met, they are surpassed. I am incredible. I am a GOD! I am also exhausted and sore…and I slowly stop my program.

And as if this behaviour wasn’t already annoying enough, I find I also have a tendency to take the same attitude in my writing.

Prepare my work area. Cogitate on what I want to do. Research. Procrastinate. And then, WRITE LIKE THERE IS NO TOMORROW BECAUSE I REALLY WANT TO GET THIS DONE THIS WEEK OR AT LEAST GET AS FAR AS I CAN GET BECAUSE NEXT WEEK…

At the end of the process, whether it is a hundred pages of a novel, another feature article for a magazine, an outline and beat sheet for a new screenplay, I am exhausted and my brain hurts. The creative wheels come off (or wobble severely), and I lay up for a couple of days accomplishing nothing, except possibly another thousand games of Solitaire.

My ultimate goal is still way over there. Whether it is within sight or not, I can’t do anything about it because I am doubled over with my hands resting on my knees wondering why my (creative) lungs have shrivelled to the size of grapes.

I can drive a car by flooring the accelerator for 30 seconds and then releasing it until the car crawls to a stop, only to repeat the cycle again and again. I can. But the car will like it about as much as the other drivers and police. And whether due to a destroyed transmission or arrest, I will lose the car.

As I reminded myself on Twitter this past week, I am not writing a novel today. Rather, I am writing a scene, a paragraph, a sentence. But I am writing.

The top of the hill is not my destination, but rather is a way-station along the journey, a landmark I will pass. And for all I know—because despite my best efforts, omniscience has not yet occurred—the hill may be the most interesting and/or important part of the journey. The upward grade itself may hold the answer to the whole damned project

So here’s to my best efforts to ease into the next hill and enjoy the scenery along the way. I’ll reach my destination eventually and who knows, I might actually enjoy the trip (or at least, not drop of a coronary).

Destination

(Images are property of owners and used here with no destination in sight.)

You never “no”

Because my mother refuses to throw anything away, but prefers to store it in a drawer or cupboard until I come for a visit, I was reminded this past trip to BC about a phase in my writing career that kind of occurred sideways.

Several years ago, I was in desperate need of a job (wow, some things never change). So desperate, in fact, that I decided to take a flyer on and leverage my background in science writing and magazine editing for a job as editor of a manufacturing automation industry trade magazine published by CLB Media.

It should be noted, I knew and to this day know nothing about manufacturing. But I can write and I can edit and I have a good idea for design. I also have a fondness for money.

It was obvious throughout the interview with the magazine’s Publisher and Director of Sales & Marketing that I could write and knew magazines well, but that if I got the job, I would have to scramble to understand the issues and lingo of a completely alien industry. They were kind, but it was obvious the job and I were not a match.

When I finally got home, I was in the middle of discussing the interview with my wife when I received a phone call from the company VP, Publishing who said my interviewers had mentioned me and that the company had a medical humour magazine (Stitches) and companion consumer pub (Stitches for Patients) that were in need of a new editor. Would I be interested in talking to him and its Publisher the next day.

Uh, yeah!

The job didn’t last very long–the magazines had been in a steady decline for years before they found me and never recovered sufficiently to keep operating–but it was a great experience, and not only allowed me to write nerdy medical comedy but also allowed me to eventually add the title Associate Publisher to my resume.

And all because I was desperate enough to apply for a job for which I had few qualifications but showed general competence and a willingness to listen and learn.

I offer the covers of my first three issues of each magazine below (thanks mom).  The insane covers are the work of the amazing illustrator Max Licht under the direction of the equally amazing Art Director Graham Jeffrey.

Writing the prose angelic

If nothing else, using interviews in my magazine writing has given me a new respect for choir leaders.

The art is to harmoniously fuse voices that are roughly singing the same song and make it sound like the synchronized beat of angels’ wings.

A multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying "Glory to God in the Highest" Luke 2:13-14

A multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying “Glory to God in the Highest” Luke 2:13-14

White space

blank-paper

Earlier today, I read a blog post by my dear friend Marsha Mason, the latest in a series for Why The Face. In today’s post, she touched on the subject of use of white space in writing, whether a screenplay, query letter, whatever.

“The goal of white space,” she explains, “is to never be at the detriment of your story…but to force you to condense, to economize, to pack as much punch as you can into less.”

I agree with her conclusion, but question if the goal of white space isn’t so much bigger.

For the uninitiated, white space is literally the empty space between lines of text and/or images, the complete absence of content which appears white on the printed page or computer screen.

As I suggested in my response to Marsha’s post, I have worked for several years in careers such as magazine publishing, web design, advertising and now screenwriting, and in all that time, I have found that white space is easily the least understood and most underutilized aspect of creativity.

For whatever reason, people seem to believe that an absence of something is an absence of work. Marsha’s comment about the need to be concise and economical in your word choice partly puts the lie to this conjecture, but it doesn’t go far enough.

We live our lives like we fill our pages, with mostly useless things designed to ground us but which, in fact, anchor us and restrict our movement. It is a restriction that we accept voluntarily and without which many of us could not function, or at least fear we couldn’t.

At this moment, I have five browser windows open and yet am ignoring all but one, and only because that one is playing music. And at the same time that I write this post, my mind is on several other posts and some projects I am neglecting.

Nature abhors a vacuum. True. But think of the greater image.

More than 99.99999% of the known universe is actually NOTHING! Only the absence of ubiquitous light keeps it from being literally white space.

In screenwriting, white space is there to let your reader run free with his or her own interpretation of your work. Restrict their thoughts with clutter, and they resist. Prevent their thoughts with too much specificity, and they disengage.

Let your story breathe, as you yourself should. Your readers will be happier for it. And so will you be.

(Image is property of owner; I stole it.)

The writer who… (UPDATED)

As an advertising copywriter, I was constantly called upon to summarize a client’s product with a single line, as few words as possible that would capture the brand essence of the product or service. The almighty tagline.

As a magazine writer, I am also called upon to summarize the stories I write into a sentence or fragment. Something that will give the reader the kernel of the story so they can decide whether they want to read it or move on.

And finally, as a budding screenwriter, I am asked to summarize my entire story in a single sentence so prospective producers can get my idea and see the possibilities, artistic but mostly commercial.

And yet, with all of this practice in concise summarization, there is yet one product that eludes my abilities: me as a writer.

At last year’s Austin Film Festival, during a session on how to work the festival, the Langlais brothers—that’s how they describe themselves, but Gene and Paul, for the record—challenged each of us to define ourselves in a single sentence as “the writer who…”. They suggested that if we could define ourselves as producing one type of screenplay, it would make it easier for producers and directors to wrap their heads around who we were and where to go when they needed that kind of screenplay. Call yourself something and then be the best that you can be.

The challenge for me was that I couldn’t even decide on a medium or genre, let alone determine what types of stories I wrote.

About the only medium I have not yet written for is radio and that’s more the result of lack of opportunity than lack of interest.

I am naturally inclined to write comedy, but my last two screenplays have been family drama and murder thriller with the possibility of a horror on the horizon.

For nine months or so, the question has plagued me. I am “the writer who…”

Recently, however, because of a screenwriting course and completely separate conversations about life with a friend, I have had a bit of a breakthrough, if not an actual answer.

Maybe, I’m looking at this challenge on the wrong level. Rather than focusing on the details of what I have done—genres, media, angles, etc—I need instead to take everything I have done to its most basic level. Stripped of the decorative details, what is the essence of what I create?

What is at the core of my favourite comedy sketches? My screenplays? My television shows? My magazine articles? And what am I doing that makes it mine?

I still can’t tell people I’m “the writer who…”, but I think I’m a little bit closer.

(Image is property of owner and is used without permission, about which I am of two minds.)

 

UPDATE

Interestingly, the Canadian film organization Raindance Toronto just posted an article called Creating a Personal Genre. Although aimed at filmmakers, the article clearly has overtones of what I presented above. Check it out.

Write what you—No!

Image

The adage I hear a lot in writing circles and books is “Write what you know”. By that, people mean write about the things for which you have a passion, because that passion for the subject will shine through your writing and become infectious to your reader or viewer.

To a large extent, I agree with this sentiment, but I think there has to be codicil. When you know how to write, write what you know.

Let me explain with an anecdote.

When I first started writing, I was coming out of a career as a biochemistry researcher who had spent the bulk of my training in protein biochemistry and genetics. That was where my passion lies. So, perhaps as no surprise, when I decided to become a science writer, I focused much of my initial energies on writing about protein biochemistry. I understood the science; I could see the story quickly; I could write about it with some fluency.

Unfortunately, despite or perhaps because of my passion and fluency, I was completely unreadable to anyone who wasn’t already a protein biochemist. I wasn’t speaking to my audience in terms they could understand but rather in terms I could understand. To a greater or lesser extent, I might as well have been writing in Klingon, which I suspect would have given me a broader audience.

When I finally realized what was happening—thanks to all of the people who beat me about the head—I made a pact with myself. Until I felt that I could really tell a story, I would do my best to avoid writing anything about that at which I was most expert. I had to become my audience: the relative non-experts.

About a year into writing about topics I had to research and for which I had to ask potentially stupid questions, my writing had matured to the point where I could go back to my area of expertise and approach it in the same way. I had finally arrived.

I think the same holds true for any kind of writing, whether news, novels, screenplays, blogs.

Until you are capable of telling a story that your audience can decipher, and more importantly wants to read, you are probably better served to stay away from the topics you know best. To do otherwise means running the risk that you will leave out the “obvious” and the “well, yeah” that you know in your bones, but that could be vitally important to an audience member trying to understand why certain facts or behaviours in your story exist.

Give yourself—and by extension, your audience—a chance to learn your story, to experience it at a visceral level. As you develop your story, you’ll likely find yourself asking questions of your plot or characters that your audience would ask. You want your audience to think, but you never want them to have to research. Until your work becomes part of a school curriculum, it shouldn’t require a study guide.

It is easier to remove the truly superfluous common knowledge or understanding later than it is to convince yourself that the information you need to add isn’t common knowledge.

When you are ready to tackle it, the subject(s) for which you have passion will still be there. Consider them the reward for all the hard work you did up front.

In a future post, I hope to discuss a flavour of this topic: “Based on a true story”.