Storytelling with Heart

Camille DePutter

Camille DePutter. Storytelling with heart.

I am not a bracket. (Or, how not to be an accidentally exclusionary writer.)

So I’m about to read a book about a sport I like, about an athlete I admire.

The book is a rock climbing memoir, and it’s co-written by the athlete and by a professional writer/editor.

At the beginning of the book, the sport of free soloing (a style of climbing), is described as: “a man (or woman), with only rock shoes on his feet and chalk on his fingertips for better purchase, against the cliff.”

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Notice that “woman” is in brackets.

Now this curious grammatical choice has nothing to do with women’s participation in the sport of climbing — which is significant — and has everything to do with the inherent assumptions of the editor/author.

Brackets suggest an afterthought. A rarity. An exception to the rule.

Suddenly, I feel excluded. Talked down to. Omitted.

This language and punctuation says: This book is not for me. It is for men. For male climbers.

I feel like putting it down. No, I feel like throwing it off the next cliff I climb.

And I’m only on page 8.

Think I’m over-reacting? This tiny little grammatical choice (not to mention the use of “he” and “his” rather than the gender neutral “they”) speaks volumes.

So here’s the lesson. For all writers and editors, whether you’re professional or not: do not underestimate the effect of choices like this on your reader.

I am not obsessive about grammar. I encourage people to write rather than worrying about getting it perfect. I encourage people to focus on clarity and communication rather than grammatical nuances.

But this, right here, is when grammar (and punctuation and word choice) matters. When you’re accidentally cutting people out.

If this is something you care about — i.e. you don’t want your writing to be exclusive and you do want it to engage all readers — work with an editor who is attuned to these kinds of things. They don’t have to be a professional; they can be a friend or colleague who just really ‘gets it’.  

Preferably, work with someone from a different perspective than you, whether that’s a different gender, industry, age, ethnicity, life experience, etc. They can help you see your work in a different light.

Tell them that you want help identifying and tempering your own bias. Invite them to challenge you. Then be willing to be challenged, to question your assumptions about who you’re writing for and what their perspective will be.

And most of all, never treat a human being like a bracket.


Quiet

This may be one of my favourite stories I've told. 

I remember writing it 2016, while staring at the three sisters mountain range, in Canmore, Alberta. The memory brings me peace. And what I wrote resonates with me because lately, I've felt this need very deeply: 

The need for silence. 

That need might resonate with you, too. So I'm sharing this story again today — along with my permission (not that you need it) to seek out a little silence for yourself.

Does your story need some silence?

This week, I’ll be camping and hiking in the backcountry of the Canadian Rockies. 

Mountain backcountry is a great place for storytelling. Not just because we’ll have a campfire or two. Not just because of the adventure. (Previous reports of me fighting off a bear with my left hook were greatly exaggerated.)

But because of the quiet.

Suddenly, amid the power of mountains that are so much bigger than you, something inside falls silent. 

Words are noticeably absent.

And that is a very good thing. 

The best stories can come from meeting our own speechlessness. 

If you’re struggling to put words to something that feels wordless, if you're trying to talk about something that feels indescribable, one answer may be... to wait.

Don’t rush to tame the feelings with your words. Just be there. Meet the story as it is happening.

Sit with a quiet so powerful that it lays your mind down like a sleepy child for a nap. 

Be with the beauty around you that is so sweet and gentle it hurts.

Hold the pain like a still object in your hands.

Feel that love that has no business being described. 

Speechlessness is a very good thing for stories because it means something is happening. In time, the words will settle within you. In time, you’ll tell them. In time, you’ll share and make something marvellous. 

But for now, just be here. 

Because stories don’t exist without someone there to live them first. 

 

"Things are not as easily understood nor as expressible as people usually would like us to believe. Most happenings are beyond expression: they exist where a word has never intruded." -- R.M. Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet


7 ways to keep your creative spark alive in the winter.

Do you feel kind of... bleh... in the wintertime? A little down? Creatively sparse?

It can be difficult to keep the spark alive when it’s dark and just so… dreary out.

Sometimes spring can feel impossible; like a dream we had once, long ago. It can be easy to put our focus on the future -- waiting out the winter with agonizing, ill-fitting patience.

But I’m more interested in what we can gain from the present, even when it’s difficult, rather than waiting or wishing for the future. Whatever I’m doing, I try to enjoy the process rather than putting all my bets on the outcome.

And when it comes to creativity, I don’t really believe much in “the muse”. I believe inspiration is something you feed, not something you find. (Or, if you do find inspiration, you find it, rather than it finding you.)

So, how do we make winter feel brighter, happier and more creative -- right here, right now?

I’ve done some research by way of travelling to a bunch of places that tend get a lot of grey skies and dark days, and watching how the people there survive the winter.

In the winter months of the past year, I visited Amsterdam (which typically gets 300 days of grey skies per year), Copenhagen (Denmark can get up to 17 hours of darkness a day in the winter), Helsinki and Glasgow.

After exploring these cities I compiled a list of winter practices, many of which I have incorporated into my own life here in Toronto, Ontario. So now I'm going to share my favourites with you.

Here’s a list of ideas to help you feel happier, energized and keep that creative spark burning:

1. Embrace the candle factor.

Amazingly, impossibly cozy: Denmark is known for hygge (a sentiment that implies coziness combined with the relaxed gathering of family and friends.) Hygge is much more than candles but you can’t deny the Danes love to a light a flame. They go a little crazy with the candles there (cafes, bars, restaurants, stores, homes, everywhere) and I love it.

Of course, it’s not just candles. It’s the extra effort to make things feel all comfy and cozy.

So go ahead: light some candles. Pile some blankets on the couch. Have a favourite mug at the ready and stock your cupboards with good coffee, tea, hot chocolate.

At the same time, try a little tidying. Instead of waiting for spring, I do a wintertime clean-out. I find that January is an amazing time to clean out closets and cupboards. Removing the clutter and creating a simpler, tidier space opens things up for a friendly, cozy feel.

As we walked around and around on the damp December nights in Amsterdam, we saw light. Light installations lit up the canals, candles beckoned to us from fogged-up pub windows, and the glow from cozy apartments made us feel a little less chilly.

As we walked around and around on the damp December nights in Amsterdam, we saw light. Light installations lit up the canals, candles beckoned to us from fogged-up pub windows, and the glow from cozy apartments made us feel a little less chilly.

Piles of wood stacked in a Copenhagen bar. Something about firewood indoors makes me very happy. I don't have a fireplace, but I do have a wood smoke candle that makes me house feel and smell super cozy. 

Piles of wood stacked in a Copenhagen bar. Something about firewood indoors makes me very happy. I don't have a fireplace, but I do have a wood smoke candle that makes me house feel and smell super cozy. 

2. Establish a cozy creativity routine

Most mornings, there are two things I do right away. 1) Put on the kettle for coffee, and 2) Light a candle. I waste no time making the house feel cozy. (See tip number 1.)

This is also part of my creativity routine: a ritual that helps me embrace not only the darkness, but also the morning. Once I have my coffee, I sit on a rocking chair that has a sheepskin rug tossed over it. I write in my journal and I read something thoughtful or inspirational.

This sets a lovely tone for the day and actually helps me relish the dark, cold mornings.

What's your creativity routine?

3. Come together

The Danish word hygge doesn’t just mean cozy; nuances of the word also imply a sense of community, of easy gathering with family and friends.

Unlike the holidays that can invoke a sense of almost manic celebration, the following months offer a chance to simply chill with friends.

Entertaining doesn’t have to be “entertaining”. It can simply be inviting a few friends over for a pot of chili and a beer. Or hosting a games night. Or, taking a page out of Scottish pub culture, meeting friends at your ‘local’ can have a similar effect. Find a cozy spot and settle in together.

It’s easy to fall into hibernation so make sure you’ve got a friend or two around. Maybe even use the winter months to re-connect with people you’ve fallen out of touch with. 

Loving the cozy factor in an intimate coffee shop in Glasgow, Scotland. Even if you go alone, it's easy to make new friends in a wee cafe like this.

Loving the cozy factor in an intimate coffee shop in Glasgow, Scotland. Even if you go alone, it's easy to make new friends in a wee cafe like this.

Of course, Glasgow's local beer shops make a good case for staying in with a few friends. 

Of course, Glasgow's local beer shops make a good case for staying in with a few friends. 

4. Look closer

Instead of just grumbling about the weather, take a closer look.

Here’s a journaling practice for you: go for a walk and task yourself with writing about what you see.

Go beyond first glance and get closer. Do you see buds on the trees? Snowflakes? Puddles? Mud? Impossibly fat squirrels? 

Lean in. Look for the details. When you get up close and observant, things tend to be less boring, less dreary and a little more exciting.

Colourful bird houses enliven the barren trees nearby.

Colourful bird houses enliven the barren trees nearby.

5. Get the gear

I like camping, and inevitably camping -- even in the summer - can come with some unwelcome weather. So when we go, we are always prepared.

I have waterproof boots, rain pants, a rain jacket, a waterproof bag for my backpack. Basically head to toe in waterproof. Now when it rains, I think -- it’s only a problem if I don’t have my rain gear.

I think this is a great lesson for life in general -- including surviving winter. 

Sometimes the problem is that we're simply missing a tool, a system, or a little preparation. Instead of resisting, plan.

So, if the winter is cold: what will make it warm?

Given the wet and windy weather, every Scot will have a pair of Wellies (big rubber boots), a wool sweater, and a Mackintosh (trench coat) in their closet. And I say, when in Scotland...

Given the wet and windy weather, every Scot will have a pair of Wellies (big rubber boots), a wool sweater, and a Mackintosh (trench coat) in their closet. And I say, when in Scotland...

In Helsinki, I found the cold crisp weather was much more tolerable with some help from wood-burning fires, wool blankets, hot drinks and pastries, and Reindeer pelts to sit on. Just look how cozy!

In Helsinki, I found the cold crisp weather was much more tolerable with some help from wood-burning fires, wool blankets, hot drinks and pastries, and Reindeer pelts to sit on. Just look how cozy!

Blankets, sausages cooked over an open fire, and Reindeer pelts on an icy cold day: exactly what the Finnish doctor ordered.

Blankets, sausages cooked over an open fire, and Reindeer pelts on an icy cold day: exactly what the Finnish doctor ordered.

6. Create your curriculum and/or commit to a project

I like to think of winter as a time to go inwards. In the summer, I absolutely hate being indoors as I want to appreciate and enjoy every day of sun.

So, the upside of winter is getting to enjoy and make use of the indoors. I ask myself: as long as not much is happening outside, what can happen inside?

Can this be a time to buckle down and write the book, or focus on another project?

Here’s another question to consider: If this were a time of creative focus -- a time to learn, make or do -- what would be on your curriculum?

Take a stack of books out of the library. Join or start a book club. Take on a new art project or write that book. Take advantage of the time and use it to go make your thing.

7. Go out into it

Of course, winter doesn’t mean you have to stay inside all the time. If you’re a winter sports fan, this might just be your favourite season.

But if not, you might consider trying something new. 

Strap on some snow shoes. Give cross-country skiing a try if you're not a downhill fan. Go for a walk in the snowy woods. 

(I've personally found that exercise and nature have helped me during times of depression. So even if the weather seems foreboding, an outdoor activity can give me a much-needed boost.)

I was thrilled to try dog sledding a few years ago (and I’ve got another session booked this year). Mush!

I was thrilled to try dog sledding a few years ago (and I’ve got another session booked this year). Mush!

Looking out into the ocean and breathing the cold sea-salt air surrounding Suomenlinna in Helsinki was one of the most beautiful things I experienced last year.

Looking out into the ocean and breathing the cold sea-salt air surrounding Suomenlinna in Helsinki was one of the most beautiful things I experienced last year.

Now I’m home, back in Canada.

The morning is dark and cold and at first it feels dreary. And then I light the candle.

I take out my notebook. And I write.


Bonus: Three journaling prompts to help you make the most of winter

  • Journaling prompt: If winter was your favourite season, what would you love about it?
  • Journaling prompt: When the winter is over, what story will you tell about these past few months? 
  • Journaling prompt: Imagine the winter was a season dedicated to your personal creativity. What kinds of things would you do in a day? What might you create? 

 

 

camille@camilledeputter.com