Category Archives: Writing

Writing Around A Concussion

From a writing perspective, I have been silent and unproductive over the past year, although it’s been particularly bad for the past 6 months. This is due to experiencing Post Concussion Syndrome (PCS) from a concussion I received FIVE years ago.

In 2012 I fell while skiing (and yes, I was wearing a helmet) giving myself a nasty bump on the head. For the next few weeks, I did the bare minimum — which, when you have three kids, is still significant. I off-loaded laundry to the kids (which they still do to this day) and made simple meals, and took a lot of naps, outsourced carpooling, etc.

I couldn’t work. I’m a writer and consultant during my day job but had to pretty much stop for six months. During the first three months I couldn’t look at a computer screen without feeling nauseous, but perhaps even scarier was that I couldn’t form sentences in my head. It’s a bit of a problem for a writer.

On top of all that, I began experiencing migraines. I’d had two in my life before the fall. As I started getting back into an exercise routine, I noticed that each time I exercised I got a migraine within 24 hours. Concussion protocol is to stop anything that gives you symptoms for at least a week, better two, and then try again at a lower level.

Over the next four years, although I slowly improved physically and was able to get back to a normal exercise routine, I still suffered from migraines. I figured it was just “that time in my life” as my mother told me that my grandmother had suffered from migraines during menopause.

I tried everything to get rid of them and lead a more normal life. I saw a neurologist who prescribed all kinds of medication to prevent them from coming on or make them less severe. Nothing worked except the medication to alleviate the pain once I had one. I saw a physiotherapist (several, actually), acupuncturist, cranial-sacral therapist, massage therapist, my family doctor, a nurse-practitioner who put me on hormone cream, my gynecologist, a naturopath and finally a sports psychologist. At least you can’t say I’m suffering without doing anything about it!

Each of these professionals, while good at what they do, felt that there was nothing more they could do and that my migraines were no longer concussion-related. It was discouraging because I knew they were a result of the concussion and that there was still something wrong with my brain.

The migraines are debilitating. When I get them and can’t stop them, they last at least 5 hours and then it takes me another day to recover from the episode.

By early 2016, I was having migraines that lasted for three weeks. A dull pain that rotated around my head, never staying in one place very long, just enough to make me lose my concentration and patience with anyone who crossed my path.

A friend of mine is a doctor and she told me that one of her patients who also had continuous migraines took gluten out of her diet and later turned out to be celiac. Maybe I should give it a go. As much as I love my sweets and bread, I was ready to try anything.

Lo and behold, for about three months I was headache-free! I felt amazing! I exercised, I was patient, happy, pain-free! I could write and concentrate!…..and then, they came back.

I had started tracking the migraines in a journal and noted that I seemed to get them after exercise – again! I felt like I was right back to the beginning of my concussion journey four years earlier. I stopped exercising. I cut out dairy. The headaches went away. But, it wasn’t really a way to live. Plus, I couldn’t understand the diet-concussion connection. It didn’t make any sense to me.

The worst was, when I told people that it all went back to the concussion, most people would look at me with disbelief or disdain like I didn’t know what I was talking about. It makes you feel stupid —  like you aren’t diagnosing your own symptoms properly.

I got progressively worse through the fall of 2016. I could eat very little without triggering a migraine, I couldn’t exercise, I couldn’t even drown my sorrows….and I couldn’t write. Producing articles was painful, there was something about the thought process that wasn’t working for me.

Finally, through friends and referrals, I found a health professional who actually looks at the brain damage as opposed to just the symptoms. I was encouraged when one of the referrers acknowledged that I wasn’t making it all up, but that my concussion hadn’t been treated properly at the time of the trauma and that’s why the symptoms had come back. The thing I’ve noticed about concussions is that all the health professionals treat what they are best at, but no one puts it all together and goes back to the original source of the symptoms. I was checked for a hematoma and nerve damage, the physiotherapists treated my skeletal and muscular issues, the neurologist just wants to give me meds to deal with the pain instead of addressing why I get the pain in the first place. No one seemed to think that brain damage was an issue, although by definition, that’s what a concussion is.

The health professional I’m currently seeing says there is absolutely a brain-gut link – what you eat will affect how you feel, and he’s given me the studies to back up the claims.

It’s a slow process and given my experience with professionals from both the alternative medical track and the traditional medical track, I’m not holding my breath, but I’ve started to notice very small improvements – for one thing, writing is becoming easier again.

 

Is Pride and Prejudice Outdated?

Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle in the BBC's Pride and Prejudice http://www.express.co.uk/comment/columnists/adam-helliker/164240/Colin-Firth-to-reunite-with-Pride-and-Prejudice-star

Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle in the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice http://www.express.co.uk/comment/columnists/adam-helliker/164240/Colin-Firth-to-reunite-with-Pride-and-Prejudice-star

I ‘ve probably read Pride and Prejudice a thousand times — yes, that is an exaggeration, but I have read it enough times to help my daughter get 100% on her English assignment (yay me!). When I am looking for story structure, vivid characters and a plot with various sub-plots that fit together seamlessly, it is my go-to novel for inspiration!While my daughter was studying the book, she offered me her opinion  which was fairly blunt and blasphemous to Austen fans the world over. “It’s so boring. All they worry about is who is going to marry who, and what kind of match it is. Who cares?”

To say that the premise of the book was lost on her would be an understatement. She is 15 and brought up in an age and country where girls are taught that with the right amount of work, skill and talent, you can achieve what you want without attention to class level or gender. So Austen’s focus on “marrying well” and “above your rank” was something she couldn’t understand.

In a way, this is a story that should be taught along side history  or women’s studies in order to better understand the context of the story. Yes, marrying well was important, really, right up until a few decades ago.  I suggested she just read it for the story itself, the plot line and how all the characters interacted, instead of trying to fit it into the modern world.

She begrudgingly accepted my advice (I think it’s a first!), and read the entire thing, although she said she liked Darcy before he confessed his actions in the letter to Elizabeth after his first proposal. My daughter thought he showed too many signs of weakness after the letter! Wow, not much of a romantic.

In an age when fewer couples are marrying and women earn their own incomes and can choose whether or not they even want to marry (or get out of a marriage that isn’t working), Austen’s focus on marriage and social status seems “silly” according to my daughter. Listening to her comments about the novel, I can understand her perspective. It also provides a good opportunity to demonstrate just how much women have progressed in terms of equal rights thanks to the trailblazing women before us.

We also discussed how doctors and lawyers and other professionals were looked down upon at that time by the upper class, which she also had trouble with. Austen, at least, portrayed Elizabeth’s uncle (a lawyer) and aunt as smart, level-headed people who could get the job done. These characters contrasted with the lazy, indulgent and superficial relatives of Mr. Bingley. So, Austen was ahead of her time in terms of respecting the professional class of people vs. the aristocracy.

Had Austen been writing today, I like to think she would have created an entertaining piece on the social ills of our times. All in all, the romance of the story Austen created is timeless, and my daughter notwithstanding, Mr. Darcy is still held up as the ideal mate for many women out there.

 

 

Story Endings: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

I just finished watching Hitchcock on Netflix. It’s a great film if, like me, you love Hitchcock films. I should preface that by saying I like his suspense films, not the horror ones. I hope you won’t think any less of me if I confess that I’ve never seen Psycho. Even today I can’t watch horror films — I am a big scaredy cat.

Anyway, Hitchcock is about the making of Psycho, and all of the resistance that Hitchcock came up against during its making, including the friction in his marriage to Alma (Helen Mirren). Near the end of the film, Hitchcock was having trouble with the ending of Psycho, we don’t exactly know what the problem was, just that it wasn’t working. Alma comes in to save the day; Hitchcock and Alma reconcile and together they finish the movie and as everyone knows, the film was a huge success.

Endings can make or break stories, so setting them up to be satisfying, is critical. Satisfying doesn’t have to mean happy, it just has to mean that it makes sense given the set of circumstances and characters.

Good Endings

There are the classic, excellent, tragic endings, for instance, Casa Blanca orThelma and Louise. Your heart goes out to the characters, but you  understand that the conclusions were logical, if heart-breaking.

Les Edgerton writes in one of my favourite books on writing, Hooked: write fiction that grabs readers at page one and never lets them go,

…all good story endings and resolutions should involve both an element of a win and an element of a loss. Tidy endings that represent a clear-cut vitory or loss just aren’t very good endings.  p. 14

If you think about all the movies or books you love, there are both elements of a win and loss.

One of my favourite endings to a movie is in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (the 1988 remake with Steve Martin and Michael Caine). It worked so well and came out of left field all at the same time and it was absolutely consistent with the characters and the plot.

Another great ending was in Private Benjamin, (1980). The movie is about a woman discovering empowerment after being coddled most of her life, and in the end she learns the lesson well.

I will never forget the ending to Tin Cup where Kevin Costner screws up on the 18th hole the last day and loses the tournament. But as Molly (Renee Russo) points out when Roy (Costner) is wallowing in self-pity after shooting a 12:

It was the greatest 12 of all time. No one’s going to remember the Open 10 years from now, who won…but they’ll remember your 12!” [source]

Costner may not have won the game, but he got his self-respect back and because of that, he got the girl.

Bad Endings

There are endings that are so awful, they can take away any goodwill you built up during the time you’ve invested in the story (book or film). In addition to endings that tie things up too neatly, endings that are so open-ended make it look like the writer isn’t even sure what will happen. I finish those stories feeling frustrated — wondering, guessing, trying to figure out what might or might not happen.

Another bad ending style is introducing a new plot point 90% of the way through the story. I read a distinguished, well-known author’s book after it launched to huge fan fare and accolades. It was based on a true historical incident that had never been resolved, so I was curious to see how the author would resolve it. At the last minute, there was a bizzare and unforeseen plot twist that came from nowhere introducing a supernatural element that had never even been foreshadowed. The story lost its credibility in my eyes after that.

Stories, for the most part, involve hope. You are introduced to a problem at the beginning, and the reader or viewer hopes, along with the protagonist, that the issue will be resolved in their favour, or, if not, that another just as satisfying solution, will occur. Stories that open with a dark, forboding end in sight (say, an innocent prisoner on death row), and end in that manner (the prisoner being hanged), after trying every way to conquer it, are nothing but depressing. They suggest that you can’t do anything, so don’t even try, that hope is futile. I find those kind of stories discouraging — particularly in fiction, because there are enough of those examples from real life.

Ugly Endings

Then there are endings where you realize you’ve just been manipulated throughout the story. I remember reading this one book where the ending made the entire story useless. I was so mad, I wanted my time back. I have never read another one of the author’s stories.

Writing a good ending is hard. You have to follow the boundaries of your story and your characters’ behaviour, and yet even if it is predictable, you want to make sure it’s still interesting and that your readers will stay with you to the end. You also really need to respect your readers’  time and intelligence and know that if you do it right, the ending will wrap up the story well. You want to make sure that your readers (or viewers), feel that the time they’ve invested in your work was worth it.

If you have some favourite stories with memorable (good or bad) endings, let me know in the comments section.

 

 

Perfection is Boring: Harris Tucker 2.0

I admit I have been living with Harris Tucker, the main character of A Vintage Year for more than twenty years. Over the years, he has morphed into a far more realistic and interesting person. When I first created Harris he was a pro-golfer, not a pro-tennis player (because I played more golf than tennis in those days) and he was in a completely different story — an eco-thriller (Laura was there with him too). He had only one flaw — no sense of direction. He was kind, thoughtful and had done a business degree while playing on the golf team at Stanford. He spoke fluent Spanish and was respectful of everyone and every thing. He came from a loving family and had one sister. His family was a bunch of academics — his sister had a Ph.D. and his parents were professors at Carnegie-Mellon University. He was considered the black sheep of the family — the hugely successful and absolutely perfect black sheep. And, he was boring. Well, I don’t mean completely boring, but from a writer’s perspective he was.

Flawed characters are so much more fun to write. They get into all kinds of trouble. They create interesting circumstances on their own, and they show that they are human — just like the rest of us. When I first began writing Harris, I wanted him to be perfect because I thought that if he wasn’t, we couldn’t like him as a character. As I grew older (and more mature) I realized that the people I liked to read about, whether biographies or fiction, were flawed in various ways. And then I realized that I still liked them — or hated them or found them interesting. Once you accept that really flawed characters give you, the author, the broadest range of choice, you begin to see that the perfect “Knight in Shining Armour” character is like cardboard. They are predictable, there is no challenge they can’t overcome and they don’t reflect reality. Sometimes that’s okay, but I’m at a stage in my life where I don’t read or enjoy fairy tales anymore.  I need real (ish).

In my mind, Harris Tucker becomes a reluctant Mr. Darcy — perhaps the most perfect (slightly flawed) character of all time. It isn’t by choice that Harris does what he does. He has grown up and learned what it is like to accept responsibility and see it through. He is still relatively selfish and still has an ego, but along with it, he has drive and direction and loves others while being loved and accepted despite his flaws, and that is so much more satisfying than perfection.

Jesse the blind dog

 

As Harris passed Jesse, she faced the wall across from the goat and sheep pens, her nose about six inches away from it, wagging her tail. Harris just looked down at her, then followed Tom. “What’s with your dog?”
Tom looked at Jesse, wagging her tail, staring at the wall.
“Come on Jess! Over here!” Jesse looked in Tom’s direction and the bounded towards him, tongue flopping about. “Slow down girl!” He put his hands out to stop her, but she crashed into his legs anyway. He patted her and she whimpered, while he grunted, since she’d crashed straight into Tom’s shin. “She was born with congenital cataracts. She’s been blind since she was two.”

So then you would be her seeing-eye…family?”

“Pretty much. Generally she copes well on her own, it’s just she’s still not very good at judging distances, so she tends to crash into things. Like my legs.” Now Jesse was staying close to Tom’s side. “There’s not a lot of gray matter in there either.”

Excerpt from A Vintage Year

Why bother making things up when life can bring you interesting ideas? One of the minor characters in my book is a blind black labrador named Jesse. We humans don’t often come across handicapped animals, especially dogs all that often. In fact, normally it’s the other way around and they look after us.

One of my friends had a dog that was born with congenital cataracts and gradually lost her sight starting at the age of 2. The vet told the family that he could operate but that they would just grow back. The dog was happy and managed pretty darn well without sight for the rest of her life. It was funny watching her sometimes, wagging her tail, staring at a wall. If you didn’t know she was blind, you kind of looked at her like she maybe didn’t have all her marbles. She adjusted to her lack of sight very well, comfortable going for walks even in the city. You had to tell her where the sidewalk curbs were, but other than that, she coped just fine.

She was a great dog with a gentle temper who led a long and happy life. She died not too long ago of old age.