Category Archives: writing

Morning pages: Dredging out of a creative primordial soup

Lots of people ask me where I get my ideas.

Stephen King answers the same question this way:

“. . . good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.”

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, interviewed the American poet, Ruth Stone. During that interview, Ruth Stone spoke of feeling poems:

“. . . coming at her from over the landscape like a thunderous train of air.” She said that when this happened, she felt the poem coming, it shook the earth beneath her feet, and the only thing she could do was run like hell to the house, chased by the poem. She had to get to a piece of paper and a pencil fast enough so that when it thundered through her, she could collect it and grab it on the page. Sometimes, she said, she wouldn’t be fast enough and the poem would barrel through her and she would miss it and it would continue on across the landscape looking for another poet.”

Wouldn’t that be exciting?

I’m helped by Julia Cameron’s morning pages. In The Artist’s Way, she recommends the daily practice of writing three pages every morning. Weird and wonderful stuff comes to me on those pages. The ideas feed this blog and my other creative writing. The ideas arise out of a creative primordial ooze; I dredge them out of the muck, and they rise to the surface with a sucking sound, brand new and unevolved.

Without fail, something comes up. Almost always I think: “I could never have thought of that on my own.”

Out of the empty sky, barreling across the landscape, or rising out of the primordial soup—however we choose to describe it—the ideas come from somewhere, someone, someplace, something outside of us.

We just recognize them when they show up.




Time and space for creativity: John Cleese

“. . . it’s easier to do trivial things that are urgent than it is to do important things that are not urgent, like thinking, and it’s also easier to do little things  we know we can do than to start on big things that we’re not so sure about. —John Cleese

I’ll be taking a blog break for the next few weeks—time to refill my creative well. While I enjoy this breather, I will ponder the wisdom of the oh-so-creative John Cleese and his five keys to creativity:

1. Space – a playful a creative space away from demands, an “oasis of quiet”

2. Time – a specific period of time, because play must begin and end, otherwise it is not play

3. Time (No. That’s not a typo.) – all the time the creativity requires to turn a problem into an opportunity

4. Confidence – openness to anything that might happen

5. Humour –  silliness

When I return from playing on the open road, I will seek to play in his open mode.

A bow tie, (ears?) and a hot pink feather

noteMany of our most successful writers recommend a daily walk as a source of inspiration. I am beginning to see why. Both of this week’s post arose out of incidents along the route of my daily walk.

Tuesday I wrote about camp counselors’ hats in “Do you love it or do you love it?”, and yesterday I found this note on the ground:

  • Bring:
  • bow tie
  • (ears?)
  • hot pink feather

I thought, “Whoa, I want to go to that party.” 

Bow ties are making comeback, so I wasn’t too surprised by that one. But what kind of bow tie did the writer have in mind? I ran through the list of possibilities. A classic black tuxedo tie, a dignified plaid one, or maybe a large, droopy hot pink number to match the feather?

I wondered why (ears?) needed parentheses and a question mark. Most of us come with ears firmly attached, so I assume the (ears?) referred to here would be detachable accessories. Perhaps the person needed to be Yoda, or a cat, or Spock. But not for certain, because of that question mark. Perhaps a friend could bring the (ears?) instead. Or perhaps the person felt that, with a bow tie and a hot pink feather already in play, (ears?) would be just too much—over the top.

Oh yes, the hot pink feather. That really made me smile. What day doesn’t get a little better with a hot pink feather? I pictured a luscious Ostrich-sized one. A puny one simply wouldn’t do.

As I walked on I realized I was close to the intermediate school in our area, and the note was likely a leftover from the school play at the end of the year. Then I pictured a child saying to a parent, “Oh yeah. I need a bow tie, (ears?) and a hot pink feather for tomorrow.” This would happen at 9:01 p.m., immediately after all the stores had closed for the day. (Similar scenarios played out in our house more than once.)

The writer of this note dropped it along the way. Did that mean that he or she arrived home and thought, “I know I was supposed to bring something. Now, what was it again?” Did a droopy, hot pink bow tie make it to the event? What about the poor, questionable (ears?)?

Stephen King is one of those writers who recommends a daily walk. Now I understand how he comes up with those out-of-this-world ideas of his.



Pie crust and life: Do it until it “feels right”

16-crust in dish

I remember watching my grandmother make pies.

To my recollection, she didn’t measure anything. She put the ingredients for the pastry in the bowl and just knew when it “felt right.” She rolled out the pastry and flipped it around effortlessly. No sticking. No crumbling. Picture-perfect every time.

Pie crust at my house doesn’t come so easily.

I read the directions. I measure with care. Then I curse wet pastry that sticks to the rolling surface, or I find even more colourful words if dry pastry crumbles into bits. Argh. So frustrating.

My grandmother was like any traditional farm wife of her time. One of her main tasks was to come up with meals for her husband when he came in from the barns or fields every day: Meat, potatoes and—without question—dessert. By the time I came along, my grandmother had probably made thousands of pies in her lifetime. She had fulfilled Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule. She was a pie-making expert.

My mother learned the pie crust craft as well. As soon as she was old enough, like any traditional farm girl of her time, she had to pitch in to help take care of the family. She learned the “feels right” texture of pastry that rolled out to just the right size and just the right thickness and flipped it into the pie plate with ease.

I’m a product of a different time. Dessert at my house is an exception, not a rule. I didn’t need, or choose, to spend the time developing pastry skill. But every once in a while—like this week leading up to our church bazaar—I make pies. Every time, I think of my grandmother’s and mother’s pastry skill. Every time, I wish I had it. And then, every time, I ask myself, “Do I really want to invest 10,000 of my hours into developing pie crust skill?”

My grandmother and mother had no choice. I do.

If I have 10,000 hours to allot to honing a skill, sorry dessert lovers, but it won’t be pie. Thanks to my feminist fore-sisters, an endless number of life choices stretch out on a path before me. I choose to write, make mistakes, and then become a better writer. (A misplaced modifier is the writer equivalent of sticky pie pastry.) I choose to keep searching for ways to make people think differently about what’s going on in the world. I choose to volunteer in my community and around the world and with each effort and new relationship make the world a better place. I’ll keep doing it until it just “feels right.” No sticking, no crumbling and picture-perfect every time.

How are you spending your 10,000 hours?

More praise for punctuation

Photo Courtesy of orangebrompton on Flickr

Photo Courtesy of orangebrompton on Flickr

I celebrate a well-placed comma and a properly used apostrophe.

Punctuation makes reading and comprehending so much easier than it was in the time of Socrates. Pity him, for he had to endure Greek texts written in scriptio continua. His scrolls looked something like this:


(from The Desiderata —© Max Ehrmann 1927)

I send gratitude, then, to Aristophanes of Byzantium, the director of the Library of Alexandria around 200 BCE, who decided to make his life easier by inserting dots at the end of sentences. Thank you for the period, Aristophanes of Byzantium! (Source: Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer)

People seemed content with a period for some time. Hundreds of years later, spacing and varying types of punctuation finally entered, one by one, into our written language.

We now have commas, exclamation marks, question marks, ellipses, colons, semi-colons, hyphens, interrobangs, and sarkmarks. All those punctuation choices create different kinds of comprehension problems.  Lynn Truss made the dilemma of the serial comma famous through her book title Eats, Shoots, & Leaves. The “Let’s eat, grandma” and “Let’s eat grandma” photo circulates through our social media feeds.

Lets-eat-grandmaI edit a newsletter for our church. Someone saved me from myself when they corrected an error in a title for an upcoming event. The corrected version read “Struggling Toward Christmas” Lunch, Sunday at noon.” My original version had the poor people fighting and thrashing their way toward food when I left out the quotation marks: Struggling Toward Christmas Lunch.


Possessive apostrophes and commas create the most problems, but in most cases, we roll with the errors and have a good laugh. (Unless someone really is planning on cooking up grandma.) Every once in a while, though, it costs big bucks. Rogers Communications found this out when a comma cost them a million dollars.

So, I celebrate the curious squiggles, lines, and dots we pepper through our writing. They make life so much easier, and entertaining, no matter where we find them.

Photo courtesy of Vicky Somma on Flickr

Photo courtesy of Vicky Somma on Flickr

A Hallowe’en short story: “Ruby Slippers”

My short story, “Ruby Slippers,” was published last summer in DESCANT magazine. The offbeat story made it into their “Summer Subversions” edition—enough said about what to expect when you read it.

I set “Ruby Slippers” in an embalming room, so I thought it would make good Hallowe’en reading.  Enjoy.

“Ruby Slippers”

© Arlene Somerton Smith

Dead women really should wear ruby slippers. Kirk Brady learned that lesson on opening night of his Little Theatre production of The Wizard of Oz.

When the show wrapped at 10:12 p.m. to whistling applause, I lay on the embalming table at the Brady & Son Funeral Home. While the cast and crew warmed the bar stools at Finnegan’s Pub for hours after, Kirk’s father, Sean, prepared my body for my casket. I watched Sean touch me. Fingertips I had longed for in life found my tender, private places in death. Fluorescent light flickered beside me, around me, through me, in rhythm with Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 in E-flat Major—Sean’s favourite embalming music. He fastened the last cream silk button on my blouse, perched on a stool and held my hand. “Mary, I’m getting old,” he said. He smoothed my hair with a trembling hand that lingered in a gentle stroke of my cheek. His thumb caressed my lips. The living touch the dead in mysterious ways.

But the crowd at Finnegan’s was oblivious to all that. Everyone in the place was either part of the show or part of the audience. The Tin Man watched highlights of the Toronto Maple Leafs on CBC, the Cowardly Lion sank the 8-ball into a corner pocket, and Dorothy sat beside Kirk and their friend, Maggie, at the bar.

“Kirk, there’s no one else who could play Scarecrow like you. When you dance, straw flying everywhere, I can hardly keep a straight face.” Dorothy’s real-life persona, Brooke, hoisted her beer. “Here’s to the most . . . elastic . . . person in town.”

“I’ll drink to that,” Maggie said. “You do the full splits and then just rise up again. How do you do that?”

Kirk shrugged. “All my years as a goalie pay off at times like this, I guess.” He poured the dregs from the pitcher of Labatt Blue into his glass, drained it and set the empty on the bar. “I have to get going. I need my Scarecrow beauty sleep.” He gave the girls a half-salute/half-wave then turned to Ed Duncan, who stood behind the bar drawing a pitcher of Canadian for the Lollipop Guild. “I’ll be in at 11:00 for the lunch shift tomorrow,” Kirk said. Ed nodded and continued pouring without looking up.

The Wicked Witch of the West, her glass of vodka and cranberry half way to her mouth, watched Kirk all the way to the door. The Cowardly Lion leaned on his pool cue and savoured the view of Kirk’s firm buttocks weaving through the tables. Brooke shook her head. “There goes the best-looking, most confused scarecrow you’ll ever meet.”

“Yep.” Maggie nodded.

The clock in the town hall tower struck 1:00 a.m. as Kirk jaywalked across Conroy Street. He paused at the corner of Main Street in front of the new sign for Knox Presbyterian Church. Plastic letters slotted crookedly into place read: SOMETHING WE CANNOT SEE IS SOMETHING WE NEED MOST.  “Well,” he said. He tilted his head to one side and then the other. “I see the sign, so I guess I don’t need it.” He chortled to himself and sauntered toward the bridge.

His steps slowed and his smile faded as he crested the rise of the bridge. On the far river shore floodlights emblazoned the gold letters on the sign his father installed the month after Kirk was born: Brady & Son Funeral Home. Kirk sagged against the railing and looked down at the dark rapids. The river surged and frothed over jagged rocks then hurried downstream past the old flour mill that had been renovated to accommodate viewing rooms and a chapel.

Light shone through a small window beside the abandoned mill wheel. Kirk clenched his jaw, as I had seen him do many times in his life when this light told him his father was working late in the embalming room, or his father forgot about his game, or his father missed opening night.

Kirk pushed off from the railing and ambled toward the blazing Brady & Son. When he reached the old mill, he paused at a fork in the front walk. The glow of the sign lit up the left side of his face; darkness shadowed his right side. “There’s no place like home,” he said.

If he slipped in the front door, his father would not hear him, but Harry McLeod was laid out in Room 2 and Kirk shuddered at the thought of the darkened visitation room, Harry’s coffin and those creepy hands. “Bastard,” he muttered. But if he used the private residence side door by the embalming room, his father would hear him. Kirk considered his options: Harry McLeod, or his father. A dark room with a coffin, or his father. Those hands, or his father. Finally, he closed his eyes, sighed and walked to the side door.

The ancient hinges creaked as he stepped inside. Ahead of him, grooved wooden stairs climbed to their apartment. To his right, linoleum-covered steps led down to a door labelled “Preparation Room.”


He winced. “Yeah, it’s me.”

“Come on down. I want to see you.”

“I’m beat. Can it wait`til morning?”

“It’ll only take a minute.”

Kirk rubbed his temples and took a deep breath. “Okay, Dad.”

He tip-toed down the stairs, pushed open the door and stood outside the threshold. He knew my body lay on the steel table, but he could not look at me. Instead he examined the bottles of pink, purple and orange fluids. Dodge Inr-seel. Dodge Poze.

Sean Brady bent over the head of the table. He wasn’t as tall as his son—he didn’t quite crack six feet—but he had the same dark curls and green eyes. Silver highlights crept up his temples. He dabbed lotion onto gloved fingers and tenderly massaged my forehead and my cheeks, smoothed out lines, instilled peace.

The irritating odour of formaldehyde reached Kirk outside the door, and he screwed up his face and started to breathe through his mouth.

The irritating odour of stale beer reached Sean, and he wrinkled his nose. “God, you smell like the pub floor. You were at Finnegan’s?”

“Yeah. We were so wired after the show we went there to wind down.”

“Sorry I had to miss opening night. But, unfortunately, people don’t die conveniently.” He added another dab of cream to his hand and massaged my throat.

Kirk was poised to bolt, but after this direct reference to me and my condition he risked a quick glance at me. He opened his mouth to say something but stopped. He leaned against the door frame and watched his father’s fingers trace the line of my jaw. “Dad?”

“Yes?” Sean’s fingers moved up to circle my temples.

“I don’t think I can do this.”

His father straightened. “Do what?”

“This.” He nodded his head in my direction. “This.” He waved an arm to include the whole room. “This.” He waved both arms to include the building, the business, the entirety of it all. “I don’t know how you can do this. I mean, you knew her, really well. How can you do this?”

“All the more reason for me to do it. I can’t think of a more loving tribute.”

“I couldn’t do it. I need . . . I need . . .” Kirk searched the shelves of pink jars for answers. “I need people to smile when I’m around. I need people to be happy to see me.” He leaned into the room. “Like tonight,” he continued. “Tonight was amazing. Everything just clicked. The music was perfect. The voices were perfect. There was such an incredible feeling in the room. It was like we were all—the cast, the crew, the audience, everyone—all one.” He relaxed against the door frame again and grinned. “Even Toto hit his marks.

Sean walked to a cabinet against the wall and brought back a large fishing tackle box. He lifted the lid on a collection of heavy makeup and selected a beige cream foundation. “So, people were happy to see you tonight? You made people smile?”

“Everyone just fell apart when I did ‘If I Only Had a Brain.’”

Sean removed a clean makeup sponge from a glass jar and scooped a small amount of foundation onto it. “Show me.”


“Show me. I’d like to see it.”


“Why not?”

“Dad, that’s just a little too weird. There’s a . . . I mean . . . with the body and everything.”

“Mary won’t mind. She likes the theatre.”


“Come on. I’d like to see it on opening night.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“Come on. I’d love it. There’s lots of room over  there. And good acoustics.” His father crossed the room to turn down the volume on Mozart.

“I think I might find it hard to get into character down here.”

“For a character with no brain, you sure do think a lot.”

Kirk stared at his father. Finally, he shrugged. “All right.” He crossed over to the far side of the room, between the jars of fluids and a large stainless steel sink, assumed a scarecrow stance and sang. His father sat on the stool beside me and enjoyed the singing-in-the-shower quality of Kirk’s voice in the embalming room acoustics. Kirk sang tentatively at first and then with more confidence, wrapping up his performance with the same full splits and rebound that had impressed Maggie.

Sean’s applause echoed. “Ah, that’s a goalie stretch if ever I’ve seen one.

Kirk bowed deeply then moved to a stool on the other side of the embalming table. “So, what do you think?”

“I think people will remember that performance for a long time,” he said, turning back to me to apply foundation. “But there are lots of different ways to make people remember you. And lots of different ways to make people smile.” He passed the sponge over my eyelids and worked the colour into the crow’s feet in the corners. “And, sometimes, something we need the most is right there, but we just can’t see it.”

Kirk narrowed his eyes. “Hey, did you see the new sign at the church?”

“No. Why?”

“No reason.”

Sean tossed the used sponge in the garbage beside the table and reached for the tackle box. He tested a pink blush against my face, but shook his head. His hand hovered over the other shades, finally choosing a wine colour. He selected the proper brush and applied shading to my cheekbones.

Kirk studied the professional ease of his father’s hand. “I’ve never seen you do this before, Dad. You’re good at it. You could do my stage make-up.”

“Oh, no. Do your own. You’ll need the practice,” his father said.

Kirk didn’t reply.

Sean replaced the blush and chose brown/black eyeliner. He moved in close and drew it across my left eyelid and then my right. The eyeliner brought the canvas of my face to life.

“Eyeliner,” Kirk said, “makes such a difference.” He ran a finger along his lower lid that still held a trace of liner missed in his hurried clean-up. “It’s hard to believe she’s dead.”

His father picked out a cedar-coloured eye shadow. “Well, her body is.” He loaded the brush and started on my left eye. “And I need to make Mary look her best because Mary always likes to look good.”

“But if she’s dead, why do you talk like she’s still here?”

“She is.”

“Come on, Dad. You can’t seriously believe that. You, of all people. The master of . . . of . . .  decomposition.”

Kirk nodded in the direction of the embalming machine. “We’re all just . . . bodies and molecules. And when we’re dead we’re just food for other bodies and molecules.”

Sean Brady sat back. My left eye was professionally shadowed. My right eye was bare. “Really?” he said.


His father put down the shadow and the brush and put both hands on the edge of the table. He drummed his fingers on the metal. “Well, okay then. Think about this. Do you remember when we went fishing for the first time and you caught a three-pound bass?”

Kirk nodded.

“Do you have that picture in your head?”

Another nod.

“Okay, hand it to me.”


“Hand the picture to me.”

“I can’t do that. It’s just in my head.”

“Exactly. I have lots of pictures of Mary,” Sean tapped his head with a forefinger, “in my head. We went to school together. One year, when we were maybe nine or ten, we had a school picnic. We did three-legged races and potato sack races and all the usual. At the end, the teachers handed out containers of ice cream. You know the ones that came with a little wooden stick?”

Kirk nodded.

“Well, Mary and I were the last two kids in line and there was only one container left. The teacher was about to give it to Mary because she was the girl and that’s what you did in those days, but Mary told the teacher that I could have it. That’s one picture that I have of Mary. I have plenty more. Plenty.” He paused, looked down and cleared his throat. “And you know, you could cut me up into a trillion little pieces, separate all my protons and electrons and chemicals and you would never be able to find evidence of those pictures. But they’re there.”

He picked up the eye shadow and the brush from the table. “Something doesn’t have to be present to be here.”

He bent low and blended shadow over the lid of my right eye up into the brow. “That’s why I do this. When people come to see Mary they’ll make a memory picture of her. They’ll carry that with them and that way Mary will still be here. And they’ll lean on me for comfort—something solid and reliable at a time when their world is turned upside down. They’ll smile at me, through their tears. They’ll be happy to see me. They’ll carry that with them, too. People remember comfort long after they’ve forgotten laughter.” He straightened and leaned toward Kirk. “People remember my performances for a long time too, you know.”

As Kirk and Sean stared into each other’s eyes over my dead body, an intangible flash of energy crackled out of my solar plexus and radiated through the embalming room. A cone of gentle humming and buzzing settled around Kirk. The hair on his arms stood on end. A knowing, a new consciousness of exactly what he needed to do permeated his being. The dead touch the living in mysterious ways.

Sean shook his head. “OK, right.” He gave his head another little shake. “Yes, right.” He reached into the make-up case. “Now for lipstick.” He picked up two tubes. “What do you think? Café Grande?” He turned the second tube around in his hand. “Or . . .” He cocked his head. “Ruby Slippers?”

Their eyes met.

“Ruby Slippers,” Kirk said.

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