What I learned about speech-writing, in Grade 8

I promised myself that this is my year to declutter, and I’ve been pretty consistent about chipping away at my stuff. Every so often, I get a little “reward,” an item from my past that I’m excited to rediscover.

Yesterday, I found some handouts from my Grade 8 English teacher, Mr. Dutcher, including his guidelines for making a speech.

As an adult, I’ve learned how to speak in public, but in school, there were few things that I found more intimidating.

Looking at the typewritten guidelines, I wondered how relevant I would find them  now, and whether I’d internalized any of the advice without being consciously aware of doing so.

“Speak about your points in a conversational manner.” Yup. That’s a big one for me. I do write a “script” for longer speeches, but I always try to make it sound like something I would say if I was just talking off-the-cuff. No one likes to be read to, at least not when they’re listening to a speech.

“Choose a topic of genuine interest to yourself and your audience.” No argument there.

But the next tip gave me pause for a moment, because I’m writing a memoir on the year I lost my dad. “Avoid subjects that deal with death and similar topics.” No, not a problem. I’m not in Grade 8 any more.

The guidelines touch on eye contact, humour, how to illustrate points and deal with nervousness, even how to walk across the stage before beginning (“crisply, thinking only of your speech.”)

Given that I became a writer, it’s strange I struggled with English all the way through high school. Even though I was an avid reader, it wasn’t until I was in university that I became adept at writing essays and papers.

But I have fond memories of Mr. Dutcher’s classes – learning how to speed-read, expanding my vocabulary with words like “triskaidekaphobia” and “ennui,” and – best of all – studying the lyrics of Simon & Garfunkel songs.

Even though I don’t remember making any speeches, I must have – otherwise, why would he have given us the guidelines?

I can’t bring myself to get rid of them just yet.







Summer Hours

Lately, life has gotten in the way of blogging. Sigh. Plus, I have a couple of other projects on the go. So I’ve decided to take a hiatus for the summer, unless I get an irresistible urge to blog.

But even if I don’t write, I’ll need to do some research about effective blogging, because I’ve agreed to do a presentation about it in the fall.

Hopefully I’ll have lots of new material after my self-imposed hiatus. Maybe I’ll even upgrade to a website, although likely not right away.

One benefit for me is that not blogging will give me more impetus to work on the book I’ve been writing about the year I lost my dad. When I joined the LinkedIn writers’ group where I have to record my weekly word count, I posted only the number of words I’d written for my book, and didn’t even mention the number of words in my blog posts. But lately, I’ve been counting my blogging and freelance articles exclusively, and the book has fallen by the wayside.

It’s time to refocus. Have a good summer!


The book I might have written, and the book I’m actually writing

This morning, I read an interview in the Toronto Star with Eve Schaub, author of a new book called Year of No Sugar.

By coincidence, last Friday I read a blog post on the New Hampshire Writers’ Network blog (“Live to Write – Write to Live”), titled “The Book You Wish You Wrote.” My first thought was Gone with the Wind, but as soon as I saw the article today about Year of No Sugar, I wished I’d written that too.

Another coincidence – just before I saw the article, my walking partners and I were talking about sugar, and how it’s in all kinds of foods you wouldn’t expect it to be in. I’ve eliminated sugar from my diet twice – once for ten days, more recently for three weeks – and felt great both times. Would I be able to stick it out for a year? I don’t know. I do know that once I fell off the wagon, it was hard to get back on. But there have been less-drastic, positive changes in the way I eat, partly as a result of having gone cold turkey. Maybe it could have become a book.

No serious regrets, though. I’m working on my own “year of” book, and even though other people have written about their year of Kaddish and loss of a loved one, I think what I experienced the year after I lost my dad has some unique elements.

There’s another aspect to writing it too. Even though it sounds a little, um, woo-woo, the book kind of started writing itself in my head. I just wrote it down,  then added to it, to see if there actually was a book to be written. It seems there is.



Designated writing hours… or not?

Every week, Friday is food day on my blog, but I half expected that I would have to call every day “food day” this week. The week before Passover, every day is food day. Shopping yesterday, cleaning the oven today, getting a head start on my cooking as soon as I can!

So far, though, prep work hasn’t superseded my freelance writing, blog, or social time. I wrote this post while I was waiting for my car to be ready, because today was also snow tire removal day for me.

I’ve had three lunches out in the last week, and now that I have freelance deadlines, I’ve been thinking more about how to structure my time.

After I was downsized and started blogging and working on my book, a few people asked if I had designated hours for writing. I wondered if it made me less organized or productive that I didn’t… aside from specific blogging days, when I usually write in the morning.

But my schedule seems to have evolved, just like my post-downsizing path in general. I blog Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays, and I work on my book more regularly now that I’ve joined an online group that holds me accountable each week for the number of words I write.

The book-writing hours are still evolving. I try to start earlier in the week, although I still don’t have designated days. At first, I thought I should be writing more, and more often, but now I’m content to write my self-imposed minimum, and sometimes exceed it.

Because of the subject matter (the year I lost my dad, and said Kaddish for him), I think it might actually be better to write the book in small doses, even though it’s not all sad. Parts of it are funny, parts are just interesting, and some parts have broader implications (I hope other people will think so too!).

Now that I’ve adding freelancing to the mix, it would be easy to spend most of the day in front of my computer.

It was good for me to get out of the house and spend time with friends this week. I like working on the things that are most time-sensitive before I head out, and catching up with the rest of my writing later.

Maybe I do have designated hours now. Sort of.





What’s strange about writing my book

My book is coming along, slowly but surely. It’s a bit strange writing a memoir about the year I lost my dad and said Kaddish for him (the traditional Jewish way of mourning a parent).

It’s strange because as a journalist, for the most part, I write about other people’s stories, not my own. I’ve written three reflections on saying Kaddish, however, and they seemed to strike a chord with many people.

It’s strange because as a journalist, I work from notes I take during interviews or events that I’m covering. During the year of Kaddish, I made a point of not taking notes on what I was experiencing. That would have felt even more strange, and on some deep level, didn’t feel right.

It’s strange because I remember so many aspects of the Kaddish year – my feelings, bits and pieces of conversations, holidays, celebrations, funerals, things that happened at work, at home and at synagogue – that I’m starting to wonder if this is normal. It’s almost six years since my dad died. Why do I remember so much detail? Is there something different about the way my brain is wired?

I don’t think I’m obsessed, and I don’t think I’ve prolonged the mourning period. I do attribute my detailed memories to the fact that so much emotion was attached to everything I experienced that year. I’ve read that that’s supposed to enhance memory. I also have articles and thank you notes that I wrote, old emails, and my 2008 and 2009 calendars to jog my memory.

Another thing that makes a difference for me – I still attend services regularly, and that triggers memories, too.

I’m not flooded with them. They come to me in bits and pieces, and that’s how I’ve been writing them. But they seem to be turning into a cohesive whole.


It’s starting to feel like a book

Yesterday and the day before, I worked on my book, writing twice as much as I do most weeks.

For the first time since I joined a writing group on LinkedIn, for which I have to post a weekly word count, I felt like I was ahead of the game. So I started to edit, which I haven’t done for a while, and got a look at what I have.

Most of the editing I’m doing consists of fine-tuning – adding, deleting or changing words and phrases. I’ve also had to cut or move some larger chunks. Aside from that, I’m pleased with the way it’s turning out.

But it still feels pretentious to say I’m writing a book, even now that I’ve written a substantial part of it (maybe a third?), and even though I’ve announced it to the world on my blog.

The book started writing itself in my head in 2009. That’s how I’ve thought of it ever since, and it feels like a more accurate description than “I’m writing a book.” Before I was downsized last June, I’d only written the first couple of pages, and it didn’t feel like a book.

Recently, I’ve had encouragement about writing the book from more people who… aren’t my mother! I do think the subject – a memoir about losing my father – will resonate with a lot of people. There’s much that’s universal about mourning a parent, even though there are aspects that are unique to me as an individual, and as a Jewish mourner who said Kaddish for eleven months.

I’ve also given much thought to what makes a synagogue (or any institution) a welcoming or comfortable place, how good things can come out of bad, what I value in people, and the changes in women’s ritual participation at synagogue. I think these themes are implicit in my story. I hope they will prove as compelling in book form as they’ve been in my head.

Why I’m writing my book

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why I’m writing the book I’m writing, and especially about why I’m writing it now.

The book is a memoir about the year I lost my father, and it’s been percolating in my head for just over four years. My dad died in 2008, and sometimes I think it would have made sense to write about what I was going through at the time, if only as a way of processing his loss.

I did write three personal reflections for The Canadian Jewish News, which seemed to strike a chord with many people. I wrote about my eleven months of Kaddish, when I attended synagogue services twice daily to say the prayer that Jewish mourners say in the presence of a quorum of ten men (or men and women, at egalitarian servies).

The year was full of surprises for me. That I enjoyed the services – and sometimes actually had fun there – was probably the biggest surprise. There were life lessons, unanticipated new friendships, and long-lasting changes to my life and my outlook.

I found the year extremely compelling, but didn’t take notes or keep a journal at the time. I thought about it, but it didn’t feel right, almost as if a notebook would put distance between me and what I needed to experience.

I like to think that what I’ve lost by not taking notes, I’ve gained in perspective – and much of the year is still sharp in my mind.

I also like to think that good things can come from bad, and they did.

After my dad died, I was hungry to read books about mourning and loss. In a way, I’m writing a book I would have liked to read, but that’s not why I’m writing it.

When I worked as a reporter and campus page editor at The CJN, I advised student columnists who weren’t sure what to write about, to think about what they found compelling, and what kinds of things they were talking to their friends about.

In a way, I’m taking my own advice. I wasn’t looking to write a book; the book started writing itself in my head. But sometimes a subject is so compelling that it “asks” to be written about.

Maybe, if I find my subject compelling, other people will too.