Tag Archives: Inspiration

Margaret E. Atwood Followed You

On November 14, 2010, I wrote a blog post titled Brick Walls, New Beginnings. In it, I wrote about Randy Pausch’s last lecture and inspiration from seeing Kevin Smith at Kitchener’s Centre in the Square. That was eight and a half years ago and recently I was at the Centre in the Square again, only this time I wasn’t there to see a foul-mouthed filmmaker for whom I have a giant man-crush. This time I was there to see award-winning, critically acclaimed, world-renowned author and Canadian icon, Margaret Atwood.

I’m going to be 100% honest here and say that I’ve tried to read a number of her novels and have had a hard time with them. She’s one hell of a writer, to be sure, but something about the books I picked up didn’t resonate with me. Then, there’s the Handmaid’s Tale. That one positively shook me (seriously, you have to read that book). I am also a huge fan of all the editorials and articles she’s written over the years, as well as her comic.

As a Canadian, a writer, an unabashed liberal, and an aspiring feminist, I could not pass up the opportunity to hear Ms. Atwood speak. I asked my 16-year-old daughter, who is also all those things (except she’s an actual feminist and helping me on my journey toward being one as well) if she wanted to go with me and her response in the affirmative came in the snap of a finger. The stage was set.

Waiting for Atwood.

How much was I looking forward to this? Time for a little backstory:

In 2012 I followed a boatload of accounts on Twitter. Of them, well over a hundred were writers. One day I noticed that only three of them didn’t follow me back: Amber Naslund, Neil Gaiman, and Margaret Atwood. In an effort to coerce the three non-following amigos to follow me on Twitter I sent out this tweet:

And wouldn’t you know it, within minutes this notification popped up on my phone:

I am suddenly very aware of all the words I plan to use on Twitter.”

Suffice it to say, I lost my mind. The fact that she hasn’t unfollowed me since then is somewhat of a miracle.

(If you’re reading this, Margaret, please don’t unfollow me)

So, how did it go?

I’m actually having a hard time describing it because it was just that fantastic. Atwood’s sense of humour is razor sharp. The interviewer kept having to bring her back to the topic because she would run off on these wonderfully humourous tangents. Another thing that became apparent rather quickly, and it should be pointed out that this should be obvious to anyone who’s ever even heard of her, is that Margaret Atwood is one hell of a storyteller. Wow. I mean, just wow. It was absolutely amazing.

She’s also one of the most quotable people I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing speak. I was going to write them all down so I could tweet them or post them as captions on photos for Instagram, but there were too many.

Diaene Vernile (left) talks with Margaret Atwood

She talked about growing up in Quebec without any of the big city conveniences that were starting to take hold. There was a lot of talk about how she became a writer and her influences. Talk eventually turned to the Handmaid’s Tale and what was going on around her when she wrote it. Here’s an interesting bit of information. Everything that happened in that book has actually happened at some time or place in human history. Everything. And if that’s not enough to rock you to your core I don’t know what is.

The thing about the whole evening was I learned as much about Margaret Atwood, the Canadian literary hero, as I did about myself, the struggling-to-make-it part-time writer, husband, and father of two.

I wish I could have recorded the entire session because I certainly would have been going back to it time after time to pick out those truly wonderful nuggets of inspiration or those key lessons about writing, which she didn’t hit you over the head with but rather sprinkled in here and there so only those paying attention noticed them. As it was, there were two takeaways that I am prepared to share:

  1. She wrote her first book when she was 7. It was about an ant, and in her words (mostly, I think I remembered them correctly), “Nothing happened until the fourth quarter! As an egg, an ant does nothing. As a larva, an ant does nothing but eat and sleep. As a pupa, an ant does nothing. The only reason to keep turning pages was to find out if anything ever happens. I tell people, if you’re writing a murder mystery, move up the corpse! People need to know about the dead body, or if there even is one, sooner than later.”
  2. Work with what you’ve got and never give up. She grew up without electricity in the middle of a remote area of Quebec. There were books though, so she read them. There were pencils and paper, so she wrote. Her first novel, still to this day unpublished, was handwritten (because at that time she didn’t know how to type) on blank exam booklets from the university where she was studying. “It just happened to work out that every chapter was exactly as long as one of those booklets.” 

So, there you have it. A taste of what I experienced Thursday night. To share that moment with my daughter was indescribable and I will cherish the memory of it for the rest of my life. What it’s also done is strengthened my resolve with respect to learning my craft. I have a story idea for something Margaret Atwood-ish. It’s more a cross between 1984, Farenheight 451, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Asimov’s essay The Last Question, but the point is I am not ready to write it yet. I need to learn more, work harder, and make a metric tonne more mistakes before I can tackle it.

So I will.

~ Andrew

Is There Anybody Out There?

Image from Wikimedia Commons courtesy Oliver Stein 

There will be a total lunar eclipse this week that almost the entirety of North America will be in a position to see. I’m undecided if I’m going to drag by butt out of bed to watch it because there’s another one coming on October 8th and I’ll have access to a telescope/camera combination then. At any rate, it got me thinking about how fortunate we are to have developed into these fabulous creatures that can ask questions, learn about our world (and the worlds beyond), understand and share information, ask more questions, become inspired, inspire others… and create.

It’s those last three items on the list that more often than not have me feeling that we, as a planet, have just won the Powerball lottery. The first five numbers gave us life. An extraordinary planet that spins and floats around an ordinary star in an ordinary galaxy in a random corner of the Universe. The sixth number, the Powerball number, gave us the self awareness and intelligence to appreciate it all. Whether or not you believe that All Of This was created by the hand of God or we just happened to win the greatest cosmic lottery of all time, one thing is certain: it is absolutely awe inspiring.

Image from Wikimedia Commons courtesy NASA

The iconic photograph above was taken in 1990 by the Voyager 1 spaceprobe at a distance of 6 billion kilometres (3.7 billion miles). It depicts the Earth as a mere 0.12 pixel in size and the photograph is aptly titled “The Pale Blue Dot”. It was taken at the request of Carl Sagan as part of a “Family Portrait” – a collection of photographs of some the planets in our Solar System as taken by Voyager. In his 1994 book, “Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space“, Carl used some amazingly profound words to describe what he saw:

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

Sagan had a way with words, didn’t he? I keep that photograph along with the first paragraph of his description on my phone and every time I need a little perspective I take a look at it and read the text. The copy of the picture I have has a little arrow pointing to Earth with the comment “You Are Here”.

The human brain has a hard time working with things that are on a scale much larger or much smaller than what we experience on a day-to-day basis. Until you see the entirety of your existence as a dot on a screen I don’t think it’s an easy thing for people to grasp just how small we are, and just how absolutely huge everything else is. Fortunately, there are some very creative people who have come up with some nifty tools that help us out in this regard.

You could easily spend days playing around with these, so be careful. You have been warned!

If The Moon Were Only 1 Pixel – Josh Worth

This is the best example I have ever seen which highlights the true massiveness of the universe. The concept is simple: if the moon were 1 pixel in size on your computer screen how big would everything else be, and more importantly, how far away would everything else be? You use the scrollbar on the bottom and you travel to the right through our solar system starting with the Sun and working your way out to Pluto. Along the way the creator of this site puts witty commentary in the voids between all the planets so if you jump back and forth instead of scrolling you will miss some good stuff. As he says around the 117,350,945 km mark, “Most of space is just space.”

100,000 Stars – Chrome Experiments (Chrome browser only)

From the ‘?’ link on the page:
“100,000 Stars is an interactive visualization of the stellar neighborhood created for the Google Chrome web browser. It shows the location of 119,617 nearby stars derived from multiple sources, including the 1989 Hipparcos mission. Zooming in reveals 87 individually identified stars and our solar system. The galaxy view is an artist’s rendition based on NGC 1232, a spiral galaxy like the Milky Way.

Instructions: Pan using your mouse and zoom in/out using your touchpad or mouse wheel. Click a star’s name to learn more about it.

Warning: Scientific accuracy is not guaranteed. Please do not use this visualization for interstellar navigation.”

Cosmos – ChronoZoom

This is one link where you can get lost for a long while and I’d recommend it for everyone who has ever wondered about the concept of time, as well as every science teacher out there. The site allows you to zoom in and learn about the Universe in terms of time. You start with the Universe at it’s beginning – more than 12 billion years ago and you can scroll, zoom, and click your way through time. As you will see, humans exist in just a fraction of a fraction of the whole thing. Here’s a link that should take you right to “Humanity”. Use your scroll wheel to zoom out and you’ll get a good sense really quickly exactly how far we’ve come in such a short amount of time. Alternatively, click the main link I provided in the header and when you arrive at the site click the word “Humanity” at the top.

Finally, even though this song finishes with a solar eclipse and not a lunar one I think it’s still appropriate to end this post with one of my favourite Pink Floyd tunes. The songs “Brain Damage” and “Eclipse” come off the album Dark Side of the Moon (easily in my top 5 albums of all time) and features a very Sagan-esque set of lyrics:

All that you touch and all that you see
all that you taste, all you feel
and all that you love and all that you hate
all you distrust, all you save
and all that you give and all that you deal
and all that you buy, beg, borrow or steal
and all you create and all you destroy
and all that you do and all that you say
and all that you eat and everyone you meet
and all that you slight and everyone you fight
and all that is now and all that is gone
and all that’s to come and everything under the sun is in tune
but the sun is eclipsed by the moon

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HZL0sNxP_28?rel=0]

~ Andrew

The Next Big Thing

Back in November, when I was knee deep in NaNoWriMo, Sydney Aaliyah tagged me for a blog hop. I promised I’d get to it once NaNo was over but then December turned into writing for the Orange Karen anthology and then the holiday season around my house (and a few billion other households around the world). 

With all that craziness behind me now, I am pleased to be able to answer a few questions about my upcoming book:

What is the title of your Work in Progress?

I have been writing this story in one form or another for close to a decade. It’s finally taking proper shape as a novel that has gone from being untitled, to having several crappy titles, back to being untitled, and finally landing on “No Known Cure”. 

Where did the idea come from for the book?

The Darwin Awards! No, I’m serious. Back in 2002 I submitted a “Personal Account” to the Darwin Awards website that garnered Top 20 status in votes the following year.  Once I saw those 450 words in print I knew I had to tell a bigger story. What started out as a film about a subtle plea for gun control as told through the eyes of God has, ironically, evolved into a novel about a few people playing God in an effort to control humanity.

What genre does your book fall under?

Mystery Suspense 

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

  • Peter (first half MC) – Jay Baruchel
  • Roger (Peter’s father) – Dan Aykroyd 
  • Sandra (Peter’s girlfriend) – Zooey Deschanel 
  • Dana (Peter’s co-worker) – Ellen Page
  • Jim (second half MC) – Tim Roth (minus the accent)
  • Sherri (Jims wife) – Lea Thompson

What is a one-sentence synopsis of the book?

My story is about a government agency searching for a man with an astonishing secret whose only goal in life is to remain anonymous and what happens when the two worlds finally collide. 

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I am going to try taking the “conventional” route first and see how it goes. I’m actually looking forward to writing my first of many query letters 🙂

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

A decade! 🙂 Having a full time nine-to-five job, plus two kids who each take on two activities every week, plus a loving wife that deserves attention, plus a couple other hobbies/businesses (my band and my photography), and time left for writing is pretty slim. The bulk of the novel was written during NaNoWriMo this year. It was supposed to be two books, the second of which I started last year but haven’t completed. I switched gears and now that former WIP will be some later chapters of this book (possibly, we’ll see. There are months of edits ahead for this novel). All told, this book will take about 90 days of actual writing to complete the first draft.

What other books would you compare this story to in your genre?

Think of  Robert Ludlum’s “Bourne” trilogy ,with a hint of Steve Berry, and a little Dan Brown’s “Digital Fortress” thrown in for shits ‘n giggles. I can only dream to be in the same ballpark as these guys some day. For now I’d be thrilled if anyone suggested we were even playing the same sport!

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Being able to give my parents a copy of my novel is definitely a driving factor. My Dad was an English major and a school principal and my Mom was a teacher, so being able hand them a copy of a published work of mine would be a big deal. Ultimately, I just need to create. For as long as I can remember I have been following a pretty standard path: I got a degree, got a job, got married, bought a house… Everything was all very “normal”… and then my wife and I had children. Everything changes once you have children and for me it brought forward this passion to create. I take such great inspiration from how my kids view the world – and behave within it – that I feel compelled to create and give something back; and show them that they should follow their own inspirations with dedication and passion, and if they do they can be truly happy.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

  • 1 cup: Conspiracy
  • 1 cup: Likeable geek gets girl
  • 3/4 cup: Good people setting good examples
  • 1/2 cup: Quiet, introverted genius sticking it to The Man
  • 1/2 cup: Cat & mouse 
  • 1/2 cup: Cloak & dagger 
  • 1/4 cup: Psychological drama
  • 1/4 cup: Bad guys getting away with it 
  • A pinch of torture 
  • A dash of murder

Next up on the blog hop: